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The New Linux: OpenStack aims for the heavens

An open source platform even Microsoft loves

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In late November, Mark Collier brought his OpenStack crusade to the Far East. Collier oversees community relations for the OpenStack project, an ambitious effort to create a completely open source ecosystem for building Amazon-like "infrastructure clouds". After the Thanksgiving holidays, he and his team flew to Beijing and then Tokyo for pow wows with independent developers and big-name outfits who've embraced the project, including Japanese telecom giant NTT.

OpenStack is less than six months old, but the project has progressed to the point where its vice president of community finds himself on the other side of the planet addressing a standing-room-only audience through a Japanese translator. And if NTT's involvement doesn't impress you, keep in mind that here in the States, OpenStack has won the support of Microsoft, a tech giant not exactly known for embracing open source.

OpenStack was founded by NASA and Rackspace, Collier's employer. But the idea is to create a truly open platform that lets anyone build their own infrastructure clouds – online services that provide on-demand access to compute power and storage that can scale as needed. These might be "public clouds" similar to Amazon's AWS, a web service available to world+dog, but OpenStack is also meant for "private clouds" used behind the firewall.

Despite years of hype (and more hype), cloud computing has yet to really capture the enterprise. Big businesses are reluctant to adopt infrastructure clouds, Collier tells The Register, because they fear winding up in a situation where they're beholden to a single vendor – and they don't quite know what the vendor is doing. But naturally, he believes OpenStack will calm these fears.

"Customers are concerned about being locked in to any one vendor, whether it's a software vendor or a service provider...and they're concerned about lack of transparency: What's going on in that black box? They worry they won't really know what they're running on. That kind of fear slows down adoption," he says. "We felt that open source was the way to provide the ultimate transparency and portability, so you can run it in your data center and you can run it through service providers."

The platform is based on Nova, a compute engine and fabric controller designed by NASA, and the code behind Cloud Files, the public storage service operated by Rackspace. According to Collier, Rackspace was preparing to open source both its compute engine and its storage controller when NASA suddenly tossed its newly-built Nova code onto a public web server. Rackspace got on the phone, and the two founded an open source project.

"What we had in common with them was that we were operating at scale... [and] that we weren't a software company," Collier says. "There was no clash of interests where somebody says 'I'm not sure I'm going to open source this because it's going to kill my revenue.'"

Whereas Rackspace offers public compute and storage services, NASA is building its own private cloud, known as Nebula. This was originally built atop Eucalyptus, another open-source platform. But according to NASA chief technology officer Chris Kemp, Eucalyptus didn't scale as well as NASA hoped, and it wasn't as open as the agency would have liked.

High performance access to file storage

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