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Rackspace: 'We want to be your OpenStack maniac'

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Rackspace Hosting, one of the cofounders with NASA of the open source OpenStack cloud fabric, is moving one step closer to running the OpenStack private cloud that you may be contemplating building.

After reporting its financial results for the third quarter, the company – which is known for its "maniacal technical support" – launched Rackspace Cloud Private Edition, which is its first attempt to support OpenStack clouds running outside of its own data center.

In fact, if you sign up for Rackspace Cloud Private Edition and let the company manage the cloud fabric for you, you might even beat Rackspace to market, since it has not completely converted its own compute and storage clouds to the Nova and Swift components of OpenStack.

"This is a pretty big deal for us," Jim Curry, general manager of the Cloud Builders program at Rackspace, tells El Reg. "We are a hosting company and this is not hosting."

Well, yes and no. And, in fact, in some ways it's better than hosting.

As Lanham Napier, president and CEO at Rackspace, put it on the call with Wall Street analysts going over their third-quarter numbers, about 25 per cent of the investment in a cloudy server comes from the physical server, and about 75 per cent comes from providing the service to keep the server and its software running. The return on capital is not so great on the hardware, and the profits really come from the service.

Now imagine if Rackspace had customers buying their own servers, storage, and networking – certified configurations that mirror those used by Rackspace itself to run OpenStack – and Rackspace charged money to keep it humming along.

"We have customers asking for us to do this today," said Napier, adding that this private cloud option would make the company more capital efficient and, presumably, more profitable.

Rackspace is not getting into the server business with its private-cloud offering. But like Dell, which has been peddling OpenStack private clouds since July, Rackspace has put together a recommended set of hardware to run OpenStack and the Crowbar deployment tool created by Dell to deploy OpenStack on top of Dell's PowerEdge-C minimalist cloudy server designs. The Crowbar tool is used to do BIOS configuration on the PowerEdge-C servers, set up the network, and plug in management tools such as Nagios for system monitoring, Ganglia for cluster monitoring, and Chef for deploying software packages on individual nodes.

Curry was careful not to be too specific about what the reference architecture includes, but it is based on the PowerEdge C6105 servers that Dell launched in September 2010. The machines cram four half-width, half-height, two-socket server nodes based on AMD's Opteron 4100 processors into a single 2U rack-mounted chassis. The initial reference architecture includes unnamed switches from Cisco Systems.

The idea is that you get the reference architecture, build your infrastructure to a spec – or perhaps pay a system integrator to do it for you – and then plunk the current "Diablo" release of OpenStack onto the machines. Rackspace techies then monitor and manage your OpenStack cloud fabric remotely, just as if the machines were located inside the Rackspace data centers in San Antonio, Texas, and London.

Rackspace is not providing pricing for the private-cloud support services, which will be generally available on January 2 next year. All that Rackspace will say is that support will be priced based on the physical server node, not on the number of sockets, cores, or virtual machines under management by OpenStack.

"We think the economics will be pretty compelling," boasts Curry. "We think people will want to reconsider what they run inside their data center and what they run inside the cloud."

But don't get the wrong idea. Rackspace is not getting out of the public cloud business. "We will always be running a big public cloud in our facilities," Napier explained.

You can also do something that is halfway between a private cloud and a public cloud. Rackspace is working with hosting provider Equinix to allow customers to co-locate servers, storage, and switches that meet the Rackspace OpenStack reference architectures so they can be deployed in its data centers instead of either Rackspace or the customer.

Over the next several months, Rackspace will expand the certified hardware platforms that can be used in the private cloud, very likely including machines from HP, IBM, and maybe Fujitsu, given the enterprise customer accounts that Rackspace is chasing.

The key will be to limit the number of configurations while still giving corporate customers the choice they think they need – and it is possible that Rackspace, which just joined the Open Compute Foundation two weeks ago, will eventually certify the Open Compute server platforms as official boxes for running OpenStack and getting Rackspace tech support.

"We'll do what customers want to do," says Curry.

At the moment, Rackspace has more than a dozen customers that are getting tech support for OpenStack, including the X.Commerce division of eBay.

A lot of customers may be waiting, like Rackspace, for the "Essex" release of the OpenStack code, which is due in April 2012. While Rackspace has been running an internal cloud with real customers on it for the past three months, the switchover at Rackspace itself is not expected to be done until sometime in 2012, since the Essex release has some features needed for large-scale management that the Diablo release does not yet have. ®

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