OpenStack architecture: A competitive handicap?

OpenStack was initially a project NASA and Rackspace developed to provide a cloud computing framework that would run on commercial off-the-shelf hardware. The OpenStack architecture organizes the model of cloud computing to include resource assignment, machine-image registration and control, and data storage. The project now has more than 150 organizations behind it, making it arguably the most popular software tool for creating Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) environments.

As a commercial cloud platform, though, it still ranks behind Amazon’s Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) in terms of users, and Microsoft’s Azure platform is a serious competitor as well. The combination of its IaaS focus, its broad industry support and the stiff competition is what makes OpenStack strong — and possibly weak at the same time.

IaaS is the most basic form of cloud computing, offering essentially a virtual, bare machine as a service. Because it’s only replacing the server and possibly local storage, IaaS displaces a relatively low user cost and thus offers lower profit margins than its cousins,Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service(SaaS). While potential cloud providers and users could buildPaaS and SaaS on top of IaaS, it’s harder to measure the benefit of these more complex configurations. But if operators focus on OpenStack IaaS, they may be jumping onto a platform hundreds of competitors offer, which could leave them with no way of differentiating their cloud services other than through pricing — or so it may seem.

The counterview is that the OpenStack architecture could actually help service providers differentiate their cloud offerings by providing all the basic foundation for IaaS, letting providers focus on other features and enhancements. OpenStack is open source, easy to integrate with and already associated with a number of interesting projects to enhance its basic capabilities. The fact that many of these projects overlap in scope is proof that there may be a variety of OpenStack-based deployments that target specific market opportunities, offering providers ample room to distinguish their own offerings from those of competitors.