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Is Rackspace Ready to Support Private Clouds?

If customers won’t come to Rackspace, then Rackspace will simply have to go to the customers. Rackspace announced today that it’s going to be offering a “private edition” of OpenStack to companies looking to manage a private cloud.

Rackspace has long been known for its “fanatical support” of customers inside its datacenter, but is it ready to provide support outside its walls? Is OpenStack really ready for production use? I talked to Rackspace’s Mark Collier today to try to find out.

What it Is

So first things first, what is Rackspace offering? They’re providing the OpenStack cloud orchestration layer for deployment in a private cloud. This cloud could be hosted in the customer’s data center, someone else’s data center or in Rackspace’s hosting center.

The company is partnering with a bunch of organizations that will help deploy OpenStack, and sell equipment that is optimized for OpenStack. For instance, Cloud Technology Partners, TeamSun and MomentumSI are part of the announcement today as deployment partners. Dell & Cisco are hardware partners.

The company has also published its reference architecture with hardware specs, network design, software specifications, physical deployment information and much more.

After OpenStack is deployed, then Rackspace steps in to provide ongoing support. This includes everything from patching, version upgrades and performance tuning.

Questions and Concerns About Rackspace Private Cloud

There should be little question that Rackspace understands the needs of an enterprise-class datacenter. But several things about the private cloud offering raise questions that need to be addressed, and I’m not sure Rackspace has a good answer for all of them.

The first is the lifecycle of support. To put it bluntly, OpenStack doesn’t have enough of a history to even gauge how long a given release is going to be supported.

The current release cycle for OpenStack is six months for major releases, with “milestones” every month. Large organizations are used to dealing with years before even adopting a major release – Rackspace is asking them to adopt software hot off the presses. If that wasn’t enough, Rackspace is also asking them to ride a pretty speedy update cycle. That’s well outside the traditional comfort zone of enterprise software adoption.

Rackspace needs to be able to say how long a release will be supported before any customer should sign on.

The second is Rackspace’s plan for providing bug fixes to customers. As part of support, Rackspace is committing to delivering bugfixes for a project it does not control in entirety anymore, and is supposed to be relinquishing more control in the next year. Several components are starting to be driven by other companies. This means that the developers that control some parts of OpenStack are going to need to sign off on features and patches in the long run.

Look at the history of major projects like the Linux kernel, X.org, GNOME and others and you’ll see plenty of examples of maintainers from different companies disagreeing over what should go in, or how.

With a project like the Linux kernel or X.org, it doesn’t pose a short-term problem. Red Hat can fix something and incorporate it in its kernel that’s maintained outside the vanilla kernel tree. Then its kernel folks can work on putting those fixes into the mainline kernel, or working with other kernel maintainers to fix bugs in another way. It sounds like Rackspace is planning on keeping its customers pretty close to mainline OpenStack. That may make for interesting situations down the road for Rackspace, its customers and the developing OpenStack community.

Is it Ready Yet?

The other question that many customers will have is is it ready yet? OpenStack is really, really young. Collier acknowledge that OpenStack is new and still maturing in terms of management features, but says that that “the code is becoming stable” and ready to host a very big application or deployment

For example, Collier says that MercadoLibre is using OpenStack already to run “thousands of VMs, I think 5,000… it’s a very serious part of their infrastructure.”

But where OpenStack needs to mature is in its ease of setup and administration. Collier says that’s coming, especially with work like Quantum being led by OpenStack members Cisco.

I’ll be very curious to hear from customers using Private Edition over the next six months. Rackspace has some decisions to make about how it supports customers, and there may well be some turbulence in the data centers as customers get used to rapid release software for infrastructure. How well Rackspace handles this tricky situation is going to determine whether it can grow well outside the walls of its own data centers.

Get Used to Hybrid Clouds

As Mårten Mickos of Eucalyptus noted last week, companies are excited about cloud computing but want some or all of their infrastructure hosted internally or at least under their control.

Rackspace’s announcement is another sign that any player that wants to compete in the IaaS market needs to offer some way to have a private and public cloud. Any offering with only half that is going to be left wanting.

What do you think? Is Rackspace a company you’d work with for private cloud, or is it biting off more than it can chew by trying to support customers outside its own data center?

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