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OpenStack federation seeks public cloud scale—and cred

April 30, 2015, 6:57 PM UTC
Room of computer servers
Photograph by Stewart Cohen

When it comes to public cloud—technology which enables companies to run their computing tasks on inexpensive, shared infrastructure—Amazon Web Services leads the pack by a wide margin, with Microsoft and Google starting to give it a run. But after the big three it is unclear whether any of the IT legacy players or telcos—all of which have a cloud strategy—have the resources to keep building the massive and massively expensive data centers needed to power all that effort.

But the scrappy OpenStack Foundation is giving it a go. This consortium of more 100 vendor members backs an open-source cloud framework which proponents say can offer AWS-type scale—just not from a single source. Vendors from AT&T (T) to ZTE use OpenStack software as the basis for their own clouds.

The latest Kilo release of the OpenStack software, made available Thursday, sports new identity (ID) federation capability that, in theory, will let a customer in California use her local OpenStack cloud for everyday work, but if the load spikes, allocate jobs to other OpenStack clouds either locally or far, far away.

“With Kilo, for the first time, you can log in on one dashboard and deploy across multiple clouds from many vendors worldwide,” Mark Collier, COO of the OpenStack Foundation, said in an interview.

By Collier’s count there are OpenStack public clouds running in 40 cities in 17 countries, on six continents. (See map below.)

Of course getting technology to work across different brands of cloud and time zones is a mighty big promise that will be tough to deliver since success depends upon clean execution by dozens of vendors that compete with each other as well as with AWS (AMZN), Microsoft (MSFT), and Google (GOOG).

That leads to some skepticism. Will all those OpenStack flavors from Rackspace (RAX) Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Internap (INAP), OVH, and others really work together. IBM (IBM) SoftLayer public cloud has OpenStack components now and is adopting more going forward.

Together all those players do wield a ton of computing power—but many say it is still eclipsed by the sheer muscle that AWS, Microsoft and Google bring to bear.

Even some in the OpenStack camp have taken a look at what the big guys are doing and adjusted their own public cloud plans accordingly. Two years ago, for example, HP was gung-ho on taking on AWS in public cloud, but has since hedged on that. In February, Senior Vice President Bill Hilf said HP is still in the game but added a caveat. “We do have public cloud but we’re not aiming to compete with the big three. We want to interoperate with them,” he said. HP’s focus is on private. managed clouds as opposed to a massive general-purpose infrastructure.

OpenStack Public Clouds
OpenStack Foundation

So by vendor count, OpenStack has good traction. But given Amazon’s expanded push to attract big companies and not just startups to its cloud, and Microsoft’s existing relationships with corporate accounts, the OpenStack crowd needs to persuade businesses that its constituent clouds are ready for big production use, not just tire kicking. That will be a big focus of next month’s OpenStack Summit in Vancouver. Current OpenStack customers include Comcast (CMSCA), Time-Warner (TWX), American Express (AMEX), and Wells Fargo (WFC).

Getting back to the data center numbers, the OpenStack total is impressive, but the big three are breaking the bank to bulk up their own data center count. Amazon alone runs 11 huge data center farms worldwide—and they are divvied up into nearly 30 availability zones which are pretty much data centers in their own right. Last year, AWS spent nearly $6 billion in property and equipment to fuel its cloud work.

This week, Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie said Microsoft—which does not break out infrastructure spending—said its Azure cloud runs in 19 “unique regions” globally, adding that this is more locations and countries than AWS and Google Cloud Platform combined. Those data centers could also run non-Azure workloads

In the first quarter of this year, Google spent $2.9 billion for production equipment, data center construction and facilities across its various businesses. It fields three cloud-specific data center locations worldwide in Iowa, Belgium and Taiwan, locations ti just disclosed for the first time last week. Of course Google also fields many more data centers for its search and advertising business, and the $2.9 billion covers them as well.

One thing is clear. It takes hard, cold and very expensive data centers to power the cloud, and it’s unclear how many other vendors can match what the big three are doing. So the OpenStack gang, if they want to play in public cloud, need to make sure that this federation plan works as promised.