Is OpenStack a ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None’ Cloud Solution?

Richard Gall

October 06th, 2015

OpenStack looks like all things to all people. Casually perusing their website you can see that it emphasises the cloud solution’s high-level features – ‘compute’, ‘storage’ and ‘networking’. Each one of these is aimed at different types of users, from development teams to sysadmins. Its multi-faceted nature makes it difficult to define OpenStack – is it, we might ask, Infrastructure or Software as a Service? And while OpenStack’s scope might look impressive on paper, ticking the box marked ‘innovative’, when it comes actually choosing a cloud platform and developing a relevant strategy, it begins to look like more of a risk. Surely we’d do well to remember the axiom ‘jack of all trades, master of none’?

Maybe if you’re living in 2005 – even 2010. But in 2015, if you’re frightened of the innovation that OpenStack offers (and, for those of you really lagging behind, cloud in general) you’re missing the bigger picture. You’re ignoring the fact that true opportunities for innovation and growth don’t simply lie in faster and more powerful tools, but instead in more efficient and integrated ways of working. Yes, this might require us to rethink the ways we understand job roles and how they fit together – but why shouldn’t technology challenge us to be better, rather than just make us incrementally lazier? OpenStack’s multifaceted offering isn’t simply an experiment that answers the somewhat masturbatory question ‘how much can we fit into a single cloud solution’, but is in fact informed (unconsciously, perhaps) by an agile philosophy.

What’s interesting about OpenStack – and why it might be said to lead the way when it comes to cloud – is what it makes possible. Small businesses and startups have already realized this (although this is likely through simple necessity as much as strategic decision making considering how much cloud solutions can cost), but it’s likely that larger enterprises will soon be coming to the same conclusion. And why should we be surprised? Is the tiny startup really that different from the fortune 500 corporation? Yes, larger organizations have legacy issues – with both technology and culture – but this is gradually growing out, as we enter a new era where we expect something more dynamic from the tools and platforms we use.

Which is where OpenStack fits in – no longer a curiosity or a ‘science project’, it is now the standard to which other cloud platforms are held. That it offers such impressive functionality for free (at a basic level) means that those enterprise solutions that once had a hold over the marketplace will now have to play catch up. It’s likely they’ll be using the innovations of OpenStack as a starting point for their own developments – which they will be hoping keep them ‘cutting-edge’ in the eyes of customers.

If OpenStack is going to be the way forward and the wider technical and business communities (whoever they are exactly) are to embrace it with open arms, it means there will need to be a cultural change in how we use it. OpenStack might well be the Jack of all trades and master of all when it comes to cloud, but it nevertheless places an emphasis on users to use it in the ‘correct’ way. That’s not to say that there is a correct way – it’s more about using it strategically and thinking about what you want from OpenStack. CloudPro articulates this in a good way, arguing that OpenStack needs a ‘benevolent dictator’. ‘Are too many cooks spoiling the open-source broth?’ it asks, getting to the central problem with all open-source technologies – the existentially troubling fact that the possibilities are seemingly endless. This point doesn’t mean we need to step away from the collaborative potential of OpenStack; it emphasises that effective collaboration requires an effective and clear strategy. Orchestration is the aim of the game – whether you’re talking software or people.

At this year’s OpenStack conference in Vancouver, COO Mark Collier described OpenStack as ‘an agnostic integration engine… one that puts users in the best position for success’. This is a great way to define OpenStack, and positions it as more than just a typical cloud platform. It is its agnosticism that is particularly crucial – it doesn’t take a position on what you do, it rather makes it possible for you to do what you think you need to do. Maybe, then, OpenStack is a jack of all trades that lets you become the master.

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