OpenStack, converged infrastructure and enterprise IT: integration is king

One needs to look no further for evidence that solution selling is still alive and well than the hyper-successful phenomenon of converged infrastructure. Converged infrastructure is the grouping of dissimilar but related technologies in an overall ‘stack’ (normally consisting of compute, storage, and networking functionality) with a single SKU. Single vendors such as Oracle, IBM and HP, which has had a branded offering for over a decade, have been pushing this approach for some time now, while Cisco, EMC and VMware popularized the multi-vendor concept with the introduction of vBlock in 2009. Today, converged infrastructure is experiencing rapid growth: Gartner has estimated that the market for integrated systems (including single-vendor and multivendor converged infrastructures and hyper-converged infrastructures) will experience annual growth of more than 50 percent to reach $6 billion in 2014.

The success of converged infrastructure within enterprise IT should be no surprise; IT has long favoured comprehensive solutions to broad problems over discrete products aimed at a single purpose. Enterprise IT is most often considered a cost center to the overall business and as such is under constant scrutiny and pressure to reduce operating costs. When solutions, particularly complex ones, come pre-integrated and well documented, IT can come closer to understanding the true full cost of the solution. Vendor lock-in remains a concern to those adopting converged solutions, but according to a converged infrastructure survey done by Zenoss in 2014, few organizations now build and standardize on their own independent technology stack.

Click to view
Click to view

Enter OpenStack. OpenStack is an ever-developing suite of products that enable organizations to host compute, storage, and/or networking components at massive scale. OpenStack aims to be vendor neutral by incorporating device drivers and hardware specific methods into an open source design. Anyone can contribute code that will be incorporated into the product. Additionally, unlike competing products such as the VMware vCloud management solution, OpenStack supports many different hypervisors for virtualization, including that of VMware. This flexibility and openness comes at the expense of simplicity though. With 15 distinct products and counting, OpenStack is a large, complicated, and broad product family that is on pace to dwarf any single vendor product portfolio. Each product is new (some more than others) and offers varying levels of both sophistication and documentation. The first component of OpenStack to ‘ship’ was the Swift object storage system. Early experiences with Nova, the OpenStack compute orchestration layer, were challenging to say the least. Each product matures at its own pace depending on how much developer interest and focus there is at any given time. So while OpenStack continues to evolve, IT budgets continue to shrink and decision makers often have little choice but to predominantly consider solutions that are simpler to implement and support with a skillset that is easily found.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. In 1991, Linus Torvalds invented what would become Linux, an operating system based on minix written initially only for the Intel 80386. While it developed slowly at first, word of the open nature of the kernel spread quickly and wholesale development began. Enterprise IT initially viewed Linux as complicated and unwieldy as documentation was sparse and the product was complicated compared to rival Microsoft Windows Server. The first attempts at unifying all of the Linux components under a single distribution resulted in both Slackware and Debian debuting in 1993. More distributions began to emerge with the goal of simplifying both installation and ongoing support through incorporation of concepts such as software package management. Red Hat’s Commercial Linux appeared in 1994 and soon offered the stability and support that enterprise IT expected. By the late 1990s HP, Dell, and IBM all offered commercial support for Linux running on their hardware. Red Hat’s wildly successful initial public offering on August 11, 1999 quelled any skepticism around the product and the ‘embrace and extend’ business model. According to Brigadier General Nick Justice, by 2007, the US Army was the single largest customer of Red Hat.

Similar efforts are underway to unify the separate but related components of OpenStack into less complicated distributions. Each major Linux vendor now has their own OpenStack distribution offering, but several dedicated vendors in this space have also emerged. Companies such as Rackspace and Mirantis also offer their own brand of OpenStack education and certification to respond to the challenge posed by a lack of skills in the marketplace. Those in search of such skills should tread cautiously. When the training being considered is aligned with a specific distribution of OpenStack, businesses should ensure either that the version in question is as close to core OpenStack as possible (this contribution chart might help – and those organizations contributing the most code may be a good place to start in terms of core OpenStack competency), or that the distribution that is being trained for is adopted widely enough to be commercially viable.

While some observers decree that solution selling is dead, enterprise trends signal otherwise. Even Amazon Web Services, the web’s poster child for disruptive and massive scale public cloud computing, has failed to attract enterprise customers to its satisfaction due to this shortcoming. In 2013, Amazon targeted key strategic hires with enterprise selling skills to bolster that side of its sales business. But solution selling is much more than painting a story around a broad problem: it is a methodology based on intense and long (often 6 - 18 month) sales cycles that involves many stakeholders and measurement exercises such as total cost of ownership or competitive analysis. Regulated industries are that much more stringent on this process.

Still, enterprise IT is evolving. A new era of cloud-enabled services are changing the way we all think of software consumption. Compute power, which used to take months and a sophisticated procurement process to acquire, can be now be had on a weekend with a credit card and 10 minutes to spare. Shadow IT is necessarily sparking conversations around enterprise procurement of software-as-a-service offerings (and the (in)security consequences). These changes signal a shift in the perception of the enterprise buyer. The success of converged infrastructure illustrates that complex solutions are palatable to enterprise IT if the value proposition is clear and the path to implementation offers little resistance. If OpenStack vendors can continue to integrate service tiers together and offer a well-documented and packaged product, the enterprise may soon be ready to bite.