The 3 ingredients of an open cloud

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Three essentials
of an open cloud


IBM Design Lab

The world is being transformed by technologies like mobile, social media and analytics. And the success of those technologies depends on cloud computing.

However, we have reached a point where cloud's success now depends on vendors' willingness to build clouds that are compatible with one another—or better yet, an open cloud, built on open standards.

To learn what it takes to create an open cloud, we talked with Chris Ferris, a Distinguished Engineer and CTO of Cloud Interoperability at IBM. Ultimately, it comes down to these three essentials:

1. Standards

They are a natural evolution of the creative process. Imagine trying to build a house if each plank of wood were a different size. Or using a mobile phone that only communicated with other phones of the same brand.

No one understands this better than Ferris. Since 1999, he has been actively engaged in the development of key open standards and open source initiatives, such as ebXML, XML, SOAP and Web services (US), and now, OpenStack.

"Standards are a way of giving consumers freedom of choice in terms of what vendors, what products and solutions they consume because… if they're using a solution that's based on open standards, they can switch to another solution that's also based on the same open standards without having to do a lot of deep surgery," said Ferris. "When you get to that level of interoperability, it allows for a lot of innovation."

It's like a wall outlet, Ferris says, which provides convenient access to a utility fueling countless devices in our daily lives, regardless of their function or brand. Similarly, cloud is increasingly becoming the power source of our communication, interactions and business. But we have yet to reach the point where it can be conveniently accessed across functions and brands.

Cloud is increasingly becoming the power source of our communication, interactions and business.


"Back in 1910, you were likely to have something explode when you plugged it into the wall outlet because there were no standards at that time," said Ferris. "And we're sort of in that same position right now."

Watch IBM SmartCloud's Open Cloud video

2. Community

In the early days of cloud computing, Ferris was becoming all too familiar with the "1910 wall outlet" version of interoperability. As a company that interacts with thousands of business partners and even more customers every day over the Internet, IBM's IT architects needed a solution.

The first place they looked was the open source community. At the time, there were a number of open source initiatives related to cloud. However, OpenStack stood out beyond the rest.

"The architecture was very compatible with what we'd done internally," he said. "But from a community and an ecosystem perspective in particular, it was quite compelling."

If the IT architects at IBM were looking for a sign, it arrived in the autumn of 2011. Rackspace, the originators of OpenStack, announced they would contribute all OpenStack code and all intellectual property to an independent foundation, governed by an independent board and technical committee.

"That was just sort of serendipity," said Ferris. "It was exactly what we needed. So we engaged with Rackspace and some of the other platinum sponsors… And the rest is history."

Today, IBM is one of eight companies who have pledged the highest level of support to the OpenStack community, along with AT&T, Ubuntu, HP, Nebula, Rackspace, Red Hat and SUSE.


"Really the best way to work in the context of open source is to embrace the community and help it succeed. Help it thrive. And that's very much what IBM is doing," said Ferris. "We have a number of individuals whose day job it is to contribute to OpenStack and to help OpenStack succeed."

The IBM cloud product portfolio, however, is expected to expand significantly with the acquisition of SoftLayer (US), a leading cloud infrastructure company. Although SoftLayer does have a private cloud offering based on CloudStack and object storage based on OpenStack, the majority of SoftLayer’s infrastructure is home grown. Ferris said the fact has not gone overlooked.

"The Global Technology Services division of IBM has a team already working on plans to implement OpenStack for SoftLayer," said Ferris. "In fact, SoftLayer had been working on OpenStack in the lab, but had not yet brought that capability to market. We'll be able to collaborate directly and deliver on the promise we made back in March that all IBM cloud offerings would be based on OpenStack going forward."

3. Commitment

Eliminating vendor lock-in is no small task in a booming industry. And it requires commitment.

Luckily, Ferris has a history of seeing his open source commitments through. In fact, IBM announced (US) in March that all of its cloud offerings going forward would be based on open source.

"Our open cloud architecture transcends just infrastructure as a service and OpenStack. It goes from IaaS to PaaS to SaaS, and essentially it means that everything that we do is based on open source and/or open standards," said Ferris. "We're looking to develop out of what the community has already started and to drive towards interoperability and portability."

Already, cloud computing has become a multi-billion dollar industry. But if history has anything to say about the impact of standards and interoperability, the greatest innovations from cloud computing are just around the corner.

Why is cloud interoperability important to you? Tell us on Twitter at #OpenCloud.