OpenStack is a collection of open source software for building public and private Clouds. It can be used either by providers who want to deliver infrastructure as a service to customers or enterprises that want a private Cloud for on-demand, self-service provisioning of compute services for departments.
The roots of the project, which launched mid-2010, lie in collaboration between NASA and Rackspace. According to Mark Collier, Rackspace vice-president of business and corporate development and one of the founders of the OpenStack project, NASA had been working to leverage the Eucalyptus Cloud platform to build a compute Cloud, but in the end chose to create its own software — Nova — which is now incorporated into OpenStack
At the same time, Rackspace had been assessing its position in the market. "We were the second largest Cloud and we had a lot of momentum, but also knew that Amazon was really doing an amazing job on the technology front in terms of advancing their platform very quickly," says Collier. "We were looking at our options for ways to accelerate our roadmap ways to get develop technology."
"We started to really seriously consider an open source development model for how we develop software, so we could build an army of developers, engineers throughout the industry, not just people we could hire at Rackspace, to try to compete against some of these big giants like an Amazon or a Google."
NASA comes on board
A month before Rackspace was ready to launch the project, it got word that software engineers at NASA were building software for powering a compute Cloud and were considering open sourcing it. Rackspace had a mature object storage system that was on its second generation and was prepared to release the code, but a project to design a complementary compute system (based on existing Rackspace technology) was just kicking off.
"It was really just this fortuitous meeting [with NASA] where we sat down with them and it turned out that not only did they have something that they had already prototyped, that was working on the compute side, and we had this storage system… they actually had pursued a design architecturally that was very similar to what we kind of had in our heads," Collier says.
The result was OpenStack.
From NASA's point of view, the approach made sense as a way of sourcing development resources from an open source community, says James Williams, CIO at NASA's Ames Research Center. Williams played a key role in getting NASA backing for OpenStack.
"If we were to have invested in all the things that were required to really make our Cloud computing platform work, we would never have been able to afford it," Williams says.
For NASA, the benefits of OpenStack were twofold: "One is that we now have the ability leverage the OpenStack development community to continue our own capability, but at the same time we did our responsibility as a federal entity by creating opportunity."
"One of the ideas that we originally came up with is that, well, we have to be involved in an open source development community, so that there was a development community that evolved to support and sustain it," Williams says. In addition, he saw the role the project could play in stimulating commercial activity. "We've been really happy to see some of the commercial [OpenStack] companies popping up, knowing that NASA had a direct impact on creating economic growth."
Williams admits that going down the open source route was a "hard sell" to management. "The hard sell wasn't so much about the merits of the technology — when we were able to explain what the capability was and where it was able to take us they understood that — but because we're a federal entity there are a lot of laws that govern [how] the federal government can participate in the commercial space.
"So NASA had to work [out the] legalities in order to move into open source development. The resistance wasn't about the capability or the technology value; the resistance was really about can we do this in a way that the federal government is doing it legally and that NASA doesn't get in trouble for doing it. And I have to say that NASA's legal team really knew what it was doing to help us get there"
In Australia, a fledging OpenStack community has been clustering under the umbrella of the Australian OpenStack Users Group, which has brought together industry players, researchers and students.
"Back in September/October  we started working on OpenStack in house and realised there were not many people doing it in Australia at all," says Tristan Goode, CEO at hosting company Aptira and the founder of the Australian OpenStack Users Group. "The only people we found doing it in a big way was the University of Melbourne with the NeCTAR project."
The $47 million NeCTAR project will offer researchers access to scalable compute power and research applications and is financed through the Education Investment Fund, established by the federal Nation-building Funds Act 2008.
OpenStack down under
"When they reach full capacity soon with 26,000 cores, it will be the biggest OpenStack deployment outside the USA," Goode says. "When we saw there wasn't really an OpenStack community here, we got in contact with the guys in the States, we created a MeetUp group we then also went out to a few of our contacts people in the industry; we went to AusNog, LinkedIn Cloud groups."
So far, interest seems to have come from some of the smaller players in the hosting space — Goode says Aptira itself is a boutique hosting company — but he says the community is beginning to mature and grow.
From Goode's point of view, OpenStack is appealing because it offers a more flexible alternative to Amazon with far more potential. "I like the philosophy of the guys driving it at the OpenStack Foundation," he adds. Currently Aptira relies heavily on proprietary virtualisation software, which is an increasingly expensive proposition for the company. "The fact that we can do a lot of what we [currently] do with proprietary virtualisation software with open source is great. We're very much hardware agnostic and [OpenStack] fits much more with our philosophy."