Considerations for choosing an OpenStack distribution

When it comes to choosing an OpenStack distribution, HP, Red Hat, Cisco and others are all viable options. But enterprises should make their decision carefully.

The cloud is a bit like a Lego. On the one hand, you can buy prepackaged solutions that are quick and easy to deploy. On the other hand, you can buy a bucket of loose blocks and design your own cloud from scratch. Given that most enterprises are still in the early days of private and hybrid cloud, the prepackaged model has been the popular choice.

But while many enterprises opt for a prepackaged cloud environment, they also want to avoid vendor lock-in. This has generated some headaches for the four main proprietary vendors: Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft Azure and VMware. As a result, the open source cloud platform OpenStack is gaining support at a good clip. And now, OpenStack distribution providers are in the double-digits.

Determining which OpenStack distribution to use for an enterprise deployment is a major task, and often more complicated than users want. Organizations must evaluate technical issues, such as the completeness of the distribution in terms of OpenStack modules and API availability.

But organizations must also consider strategic issues when choosing an OpenStack distribution. The most important of these is support and the impact on enterprise staffing. At the ideal end of the spectrum, the distribution will be turnkey, preintegrated and ready to launch. All of the big system vendors can supply that, but there is a substantial price premium involved and, more importantly, potential vendor lock-in, stemming from how the hardware platforms handle networking, storage and management tools.

This vendor lock-in can be especially challenging for organizations that are understaffed and under experienced with OpenStack. As the installation evolves from a test deployment, to early production to becoming a mainstream enterprise platform, the natural tendency is to build on what exists.

In addition, in the three to five years a full deployment will take, most enterprises become skilled in OpenStack and are willing to use open source technologies, as well as a mix of tools from different vendors. Users at this level want vendor independence.

Choosing an OpenStack distribution

OpenStack distributions appear to fall into two classes. First, there are distributions from pure software players, with Red Hat, which has a history of success merging open source with enterprise support, as the predominant provider. VMware is also a software-only OpenStack player, but was late to address the hybrid cloud market, which shows in its lower-than-expected adoption.

Red Hat appears to be following its well-tried Linux methodology with its OpenStack distribution. With solid guidance on hardware platforms, Red Hat's distribution could be a viable option for second-generation, expanded deployments. However, it will come at the cost of hiring or contracting for OpenStack integration skills.

Second, there are OpenStack distributions from hardware or systems vendors. HP, Dell, IBM and Cisco are today's major OpenStack distributors, though the likes of Lenovo, Huawei, Supermicro, Quanta and others will soon enter the fray.

HP and Dell both embrace the idea of low-cost hardware and offer both hyper-converged systems and SDI-class alternatives, which are just coming to market. Cisco, however, has a networking business at risk, since software-defined networking (SDN) is displacing expensive switches and routers. In fact, Cisco's version of SDN reads more like business as usual for its switches, and won't necessarily lead to cost savings. Overall, Cisco's OpenStack distribution could come with vendor lock-in issues.

IBM, meanwhile, also delivers somewhat proprietary platforms. However, the company has considerable resources, so it should make its mark in the OpenStack market. One area where IBM could create a unique value is in the looming migration of legacy systems to the cloud, which could become its dominant business proposition.

For some, the best path to an OpenStack cloud is a prepackaged solution from a vendor like HP or Dell as the first step. Then, the next step is either to continue with that model for early OpenStack production or make a shift to Red Hat or IBM on white box hardware. Mainstream production will depend on the maturity of the enterprise's OpenStack skills, but the white box path will eventually be the cheapest and most flexible.

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