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27 June 2011, 15:15

Cisco and OpenStack

by Simon Bisson

OpenStack is the new star in the open cloud business, but some of the companies working with it aren't known for their open source credentials. Take Cisco, which has more often run into trouble with open source than been known as a great contributor to it. Simon Bisson caught up with Cisco's cloud computing CTO Lew Tucker to find out what the networking giant was planning.

Cloud this, cloud that, cloud the other. You can't get away from it, with computing giants all touting their own proprietary cloud services. Even Amazon's Web Services (AWS) cloud platform, probably the most open of the lot, has its own APIs for storage and for management. So how are you going to be able to move your cloud applications from service to service, from private to public? Is cloud the ultimate in vendor lock-in, forcing even open technologies to run on the one true virtual infrastructure?

Open Stack That's where OpenStack comes in. Building on work done by hosting company RackSpace using NASA's open source cloud platform Nova, it's grown to be one of the largest open cloud projects, with more than 75 corporate participants and support for all the major hypervisors. OpenStack offers users portability, providing a generic framework for managing infrastructure as a service along with tools for using that infrastructure as a platform. It's a big endeavour and one that needs more and larger participants if it is to deliver on the vision of a truly portable cloud.

One of OpenStack's larger members is Cisco, and its cloud computing CTO Lew Tucker was at O'Reilly's Velocity 2011 conference in Santa Clara to talk about the networking giant's role in the project – and how it was looking to add networking services to the OpenStack model. Tucker has a lot of experience in cloud computing, having overseen the development of the APEX programming model at and having turned Sun's early work on grid computing into the Sun Cloud utility computing service.

Zoom Lew Tucker in 2008
Source: Jeff Kubina -
Tucker describes the current state of the art in cloud computing as "in the builder phase, where it's all about makers and doing it yourself", something he compares to the early days of computing and the Homebrew Computer Club. It's an approach that's in conflict with the traditional enterprise development model, where scale-up architectures have led to the development of massively inefficient data centres. The web is very different, and its use of scale-out concepts means that very few services run on a very large number of machines – what Tucker suggests is "Just the opposite of the enterprise".

Commodity systems make things easier, but they're one of the things driving cloud development to a DIY model – something that's made worse by the proliferation of infrastructure as a service providers (IaaS). As a result, customers are being locked into platforms, limiting flexibility and reducing the freedom to change vendor. As Tucker says: "Customers need to have a common platform and to be able to move data in and out." They also want standard APIs to simplify development, that will give them the opportunity to use open source tools. That's the opposite of what you get when you sign up for Microsoft Azure or Google AppEngine, with proprietary development models and tooling.

Things aren't easy for cloud providers either, especially small providers moving into the cloud from running traditional hosting businesses. They need to run cloud tools on many different servers, often running different operating systems and using different hardware – while still supporting clients who expect a single coherent compute framework. While they can focus on support offerings, they also need to differentiate, rolling out new services as they're needed. Tucker believes this is where open source has an advantage, as it can leverage the work of a large number of developers, working across multiple hardware implementations. It means that it's possible to deploy at service providers and on-premise, while still being able to be customised to fit a business' specific needs or to add the additional services they want.

You'll need much the same model if you're developing an in-house private cloud. While you get some of the economies of scale from switching to commodity hardware, you need to be running software like Microsoft's AppFabric to take advantage of new cloud-based design patterns – including bursting workload to the cloud. If you're going to run as an in-house service provider then, as Tucker notes, it's important to have a common platform in your network and on your cloud provider's systems.

Next: OpenStack's blueprints

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