OpenStack and the Software Defined Data Center (SDDC)

OpenStack Logo

openstack-cloud-software-vertical-smallThe OpenStack Summit this week continued to fan the flames of the software-defined data center. The software-defined data center is just a term for replacing traditional data center hardware functionality with the same features implemented in software, running on commodity x86 servers. While software-defined approaches to data center features are at least nominally less expensive than their hardware counterparts the real promise in the approach is flexibility and management ease with high levels of integration. Reconfiguring a network to support the security requirements of a new application is now just a function of  software and APIs. Expanding storage is just simply adding another node with more storage attached, and the cluster compensates automatically. Even things like firewall rules and load balancer configurations can now be stored as templates along with the applications, to be provisioned in minutes.

Most virtualization vendors are headed in this direction, at varying speeds. The 800 lb. virtualization gorilla, VMware, acquired the software-defined networking company Nicira in August 2012, and the software-defined storage company Virsto in February 2013, but has yet to release an integrated product. In contrast, OpenStack has been speeding forward, averaging a new major milestone every 5 months or so. The latest release, code-named Grizzly, makes the product more of the glue it needs to be to hold a data center infrastructure together. It officially adds support for VMware ESXi and Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors alongside OpenStack classics KVM and Xen, which helps IT organizations  mix & match the user-facing components, the infrastructure components, licensing costs, and application support (since very few application vendors support hypervisors other than VMware or Hyper-V). OpenStack also starts adding federation capabilities with the experimental new “Cell” features, where  multiple OpenStack environments can be managed as one, but be unique in many ways. This is similar to the way VMware’s vCloud Director can function, and organizations that have multiple sites and like walking the multi-hypervisor path will welcome this change. Unlike vCloud Director, though, Grizzly has the capability to do bare-metal machine provisioning, the likes of which have only been seen in tools such as  those from the November 2012 Dell acquisition of Gale Technologies. This is a very interesting move and shows how broad the effects of OpenStack will be on the whole industry.

The hottest news in the OpenStack world is the same hot news as converged infrastructure everywhere: more options for storage and networking. On the storage front the Ceph storage project continues to outshine other open-source clustered storage technologies like GlusterFS or even the OpenStack-native Swift with its ability to handle both block  and object storage, its cleaner implementation, and its better ability to scale its data replication. These technologies aim to turn your data  center into a roll-your-own version of Nutanix or Scale Computing, the commercially-available completely converged infrastructure solutions. Whether it’ll be less expensive overall or more flexible in the enterprise to do it yourself remains to be seen, and depends on your staff and scale.

On the network front the OpenStack Network Service release, code-named “Quantum,” takes the last release, Nova, and adds desperately needed features like load balancing (“Load Balancing as a Service”), packet filtering at layer 3 and 4 with both IPv4 and IPv6 support, and more plugins for the major third-party software-defined network players. VMware offers basic support in these areas with their vCloud Networking and Security products (formerly vShield) but with no IPv6 support and no third-party switch integration they are falling behind. The VMware acquisition of Nicira should help them compete adequately in this space.

The future of OpenStack looks promising, and much of the chaos in the OpenStack Foundation and community is a result of them moving so rapidly to catch the industry leaders. With Grizzly they’ve finally reached a point where they’re viable for many business needs, and can start working to unseat VMware in the enterprise. Whether that happens or not will hinge on how VMware chooses to distribute their product. If VMware continues their trend of paid upgrades for additional features OpenStack’s enterprise hopes will be spectacular. If VMware chooses to roll their software-defined data center vision into the vCloud suites, paid for by support contracts, it’ll be a harder call. Regardless, though, as Grizzly shows, the intertwined, inseparable future of OpenStack and software-defined data centers is bright.