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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 19th July 2010 04:02

NASA and Rackspace open source cloud fluffer

OpenStack targets one million machine Nebula

NASA and Rackspace have joined forces to open source a new platform for building so-called infrastructure clouds. Known as OpenStack, the platform is available under an Apache license, and when completed – possibly by the end of the year – NASA and Rackspace will ditch their current infrastructure cloud platforms, which don't scale as they would like.

NASA's Nebula infrastructure cloud is installed installed at NASA's Ames Research Center and is in the process of being and extended to the Goddard Spaceflight Center outside of Washington, DC. The Nebula cloud was spearheaded by Chris Kemp, who is now NASA's chief technology officer, and in an interview with El Reg, Kemp had nice things to say about the Eucalyptus cloud fabric controller that Nebula was currently using, which is an open source clone of Amazon's EC2 compute cloud and S3 storage cloud.

But Kemp also said that the scalability of the product and other issues with Eucalyptus (including the inability by NASA to get some of its enhancements into the Eucalyptus code base) compelled Kemp to take the entire Nebula team and dedicate it – for the past six months – to creating a new fabric controller, called Nova, from scratch.

It was serendipity that at just the time when NASA was working on the guts of a new compute engine that Rackspace had decided to contact NASA about its plan to open source the "Ozone" code behind its Cloud Servers compute cloud and the Cloud Files storage cloud (formerly known as CloudFS). NASA had released the Nova cloud fabric controller under an Apache 2 license at (the code is currently at the 0.42 release level and admittedly buggy), and according to Jim Curry, vice president of corporate development at Rackspace, decided not only to open source its Cloud Servers code but to start the OpenStack project to mix-and-match the best bits of its Ozone code base with NASA's Nova code base to forge a better cloud fabric controller.

Nova is written in C, C++, and Python and Ozone is written in Python, and at this point, the exact nature of the merged project is being hammered out by NASA, Rackspace, and 25 other partners who are lining up to support the OpenStack Compute fabric controller.

Like the Eucalyptus tools NASA is currently using in its Nebula cloud, the Nova cloud fabric controller is built to mimic Amazon's EC2 and S3 APIs. Most of the code is written in Python, using the Tornado and Twisted frameworks. It uses the open source Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP) that Red Hat has championed for its Enterprise MRG cloudy Linux stack as well as a Redis distributed key value store. The code was released at the end of May.

NASA will be adopting the OpenStack Object Storage as its default object-based storage, and this code is literally Rackspace's Cloud Files opened up under an Apache 2 license to match that of NASA's Nova fabric controller.

Sometime in the fourth quarter, after the OpenStack project gets fully organized and programmers from inside NASA and Rackspace as well as from the OpenStack community decide what features and standards to support, both NASA and Rackspace intend to put the OpenStack Compute and Object Storage code into production. At that point, Eucalyptus and VMware's vSphere will be relegated to jobs where NASA needs to support a cloud that has third party application certification, something that Kemp never envisioned doing on the Nebula cloud in the first place and still doesn't see happening. "There is a place in the enterprise for all of these platforms," says Kemp.

The problem with the tools being created and sold by Eucalyptus Systems, VMware, and others trying to provide tools to fluff up clouds is that the scale that NASA and Rackspace are wrestling with is beyond the capability of these products.

"We are not the target customer," says Kemp. "We are constantly working around issues and creating code because of this." The difference is between a platform, which you can pull apart in a modular way – perhaps changing the networking engine or the queuing engine to boost performance – and a product, which is tends to be a single, integrated thing bound by the needs of an average of customers, not those pushing the scalability limits.

What kind of scalability are NASA and Rackspace talking about with the OpenStack software? The initial design goals agreed to by the two parties (who do not have any kind of formal arrangement except to contribute code to the OpenStack project and work in the community) is for OpenStack to span 1 million host machines and control up to 60 million virtual machines.

"VMware has not built something that can scale up to Amazon-level scalability of hundreds of thousands to millions of servers," says Curry at Rackspace. And as for Eucalyptus, Kemp over at NASA said "our team's analysis is that it could not get anywhere near it," meaning the design goals for OpenStack. Curry joked that if anyone wants to provide Rackspace with the iron, it would be happy to test it across a million boxes. (What do you say, Google?)

The exact feeds and speeds of the OpenStack Compute fabric controller have not been hammered out, but Rackspace hosted a design summit in Austin, Texas from July 13 through 16 where 100 technical advisors from 25 companies were on hard to help hammer out the initial details. These include AMD, Autonomic Resources, Citrix Systems,, Cloudkick, CloudSwitch, Dell, enStratus, FathomDB, Intel, iomart Group, Limelight, Nicira, NTT Data, Opscode, Peer 1, Puppet Labs, RightScale, Riptano, Scalr, Sonian, Spiceworks, ThoughtWorks, Zenoss, and Zuora. The initial cloud fabric will support KVM virtual machines as well as Xen virtual machines based on the open source Xen as well as Citrix Systems' XenServer implementation. (It is not clear yet how the Xen community, which created its own cloud stack last summer, and Citrix, which sells a commercial cloud fluffer called Citrix Cloud Center (or C3 for short), will participate in the CloudStack project.)

Maniacal support

By the way, other goodies in the Ozone compute fabric from Rackspace are not being open sourced, such as the Rackspace internal control panel, metering and billing systems, and ticketing systems. The OpenStack Compute tool will have APIs in them to let homegrown or third party systems plug into the fabric controller to provide these functions. (Service providers already have all these anyway, and so do many IT shops).

While NASA and Rackspace are looking to roll out OpenStack Compute and OpenStack Object Storage in the fall, other companies will be looking to do it soon thereafter once the code is put through the paces. And if they decide to use it in production, then Rackspace is going to set itself up to be the Red Hat for open source clouds, offering Level 2 and 3 tech support for the OpenStack tools to anyone who wants to pay cashish for it. (NASA will almost certainly not pay for support for OpenStack from Rackspace, given that it will know as much about it as anyone else on the project. But maybe some day. . . . )

On first glance, the fact that Rackspace is supporting open source cloud tools might sounds a bit like selling bullets to your enemies so they can shoot back at you. And Curry admits there will be a bit of that.

But Curry also says that Rackspace, NASA, and other organizations (hosting companies and governments alike) that want to support or sell virtualized infrastructure need compatibility and scalability more than they need anything else right now, and if enough people back OpenStack, it can become a de facto standard, much as Amazon and its EC2 and S3 have become in clouds and VMware's ESX Server has become in commercial data centers.

Rackspace is betting than even if it helps some of its rivals in the hosting space, its "maniacal support" and broad offerings (including VMware and Hyper-V virtual infrastructure for those who want it) will give it an edge. This is the same bet that all of the participants in the Linux community who sell commercial support for Linux are betting. And just maybe, Rackspace can make a tidy sum selling OpenStack support to smaller service providers, benefiting from the niches where these companies play and reaching customers they would not normally get to. ®

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