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Three Flavours of Infrastructure Cloud

A curious notion that seems to be doing the rounds of the OpenStack traps at the moment is the idea that Infrastructure-as-a-Service clouds must by definition be centred around the provisioning of virtual machines. The phrase ‘small, stable core’ keeps popping up in a way that makes it sound like a kind of dog-whistle code for the idea that other kinds of services are a net liability. Some members of the Technical Committee have even got on board and proposed that the development of OpenStack should be reorganised around the layering of services on top of Nova.

Looking at the history of cloud computing reveals this is as a revisionist movement. OpenStack itself was formed as the merger of Nova and the object storage service, Swift. Going back even further, EC2 was the fourth service launched by Amazon Web Services. Clearly at some point we believed that a cloud could mean something other than virtual machines.

Someone told me a few weeks ago that Swift was only useful as an add-on to Nova; a convenience exploited only by the most sophisticated modern web application architectures. This is demonstrably absurd: you can use Swift to serve an entire static website, surely the least sophisticated web application architecture possible (though no less powerful for it). Not to mention all the other potential uses that revolve around storage and not computation, like online backups. Entire companies, including SwiftStack, exist only to provide standalone object storage clouds.

You could in theory tell a similar story for an asynchronous messaging service. Can you imagine an application in which two devices with intermittent network connectivity might want to communicate in a robust way? (Would it help if I said one was in your pocket?) I can, and in case you didn’t get the memo, the ‘Internet of Things’ is the new ‘Cloud’—in the sense of being a poorly-defined umbrella term for a set of loosely-related technologies whose importance stems more from the diversity of applications implemented with them than from any commonality between them. You heard it here first. What you need here is a cloud in the original sense of the term: an amorphous blob that is always available and abstracts away the messier parts of end-to-end communication and storage. A service like Zaqar could be a critical piece of infrastructure for some of these applications. I am not aware of a company which has been successful deploying a service of this type standalone, though there have certainly been attempts (StormMQ springs to mind). Perhaps for a reason, or perhaps they were just ahead of their time.

Of course things get even better when you can start combining these services, especially within the framework of an integrated IaaS platform like OpenStack, where things like Keystone authentication are shared. Have really big messages to send? Drop them into object storage and include a pointer in the message. Want to process a backlog of messages? Fire up some short-lived virtual machines to churn through them. Want tighter control of access to your stored objects? Proxy the request through a custom application running on a Nova server.

Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg of potential use cases that can be solved without even getting into the Nova-centric ones. Obviously the benefits to modern, cloud-native applications of accessing durable, scalable, multi-tenant storage and messaging as services are potentially huge as well.

Nova, Zaqar and Swift are the Peanut Butter, Bacon and Bananas of your OpenStack cloud sandwich: each is delicious on its own, or in any combination. The 300 pound Elvis of cloud will naturally want all three, but expect to see every possible permutation deployed in some organisation. Part of the beauty of open source is that one size does not have to fit all.

Of course providing stable infrastructure to move legacy applications to a shared, self-service model is important, and it is no surprise to see users clamouring for it in this still-early stage of the cloud transition. However if the cloud-native applications of the future are written against proprietary APIs then OpenStack will have failed to achieve its mission. Fortunately, I do not believe those goals are in opposition. In fact, I think they are complementary. We can, and must, do both. Stop the madness and embrace the tastiness.