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DoD mulls OpenStack to stretch IT budgets

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The Department of Defense’s search to squeeze greater performance out of its data centers resources may lead to OpenStack software.

The department is examining OpenStack’s numerous efficiency and financial benefits — and its acceptance in the commercial sector — as a way of enabling budget-strapped facilities to keep pace with growing demands.

OpenStack is an open-source, cloud-based operating system that lets adopters control large pools of compute, storage and networking resources throughout a data center via a dashboard that enables flexible service provisioning through a Web interface.

Over 500 companies are involved in OpenStack’s development. “OpenStack is an engine,” said Andras Szakal, chief technology officer for IBM Federal. “It isn’t particular to a type of cloud; it is the foundation for creating a cloud.”

By using commodity-level x86 hardware as the platform for key data center components, OpenStack adopters can obtain a wide degree of flexibility — and cost savings — that would not be ordinarily available with a traditional data center.

“For example, if you were to purchase traditional storage, computer and network infrastructure for deployment of a data center today, each of those components could only ever be used for the function they were originally designed for,” said Adam Clater, chief cloud architect in the Office of the Chief Technologist, at Red Hat Public Sector. “A network switch, for example, is only ever going to be a network switch, it’s never going to be a load balancer, router or firewall. With OpenStack, x86 hardware can support compute, storage and networking.”

What a standards-based, open source-based foundation like OpenStack provides is the ability to create an environment that allows for workload portability and is supported by multiple vendors, said Szakal.

Benefits include flexibility and scalability

Clater noted that with OpenStack resource transitions can be made almost effortlessly. “You could fill a standard shipping container with commodity x86 hardware and implement that as software-defined storage on Monday and leverage it as software-defined networking or compute the next week,” he said. “This flexibility brings significant benefit from a financial, as well as mission responsiveness perspective.”

Such flexibility also makes OpenStack appealing to a wide range of adopters, but particularly to massive organizations like DoD that are looking to do more with less as soon as possible. “OpenStack provides the services to manage the scale up and the scale out of the resources and that software-defined environment, and the only limitation you really have is the capacity of the network, the bandwidth,” Szakl said.

Kapil Bakshi, a distinguished systems engineer for Cisco Systems, listed availability, flexibility, elasticity and openness as OpenStack’s key benefits. “If you have services and applications already deployed on OpenStack, and then you decide to move to a different set of cloud services, as long as they’re OpenStack compliant, or as open as OpenStack, then those application services should be easily portable,” he said.

“All the benefits you see from a cloud, from focusing on getting something stood up very quickly, the agility, the reduction of capital expenses and moving it to more of an operational expenses model, clearly applies here,” Bakshi said.

Pockets of success

Most early OpenStack use cases are in high-performance computing, scientific research and working with either cloud-native or cloud-ready applications. “For those organizations and those development teams, we’re finding applications that fit well into the OpenStack paradigm,” Clater said. “For other organizations, there is a need to identify new application development efforts already under way, and prescriptively move those workloads to OpenStack.”

The Department of Energy and other federal scientific and research organizations are already benefiting from OpenStack, but DoD’s approach is still emerging, Clater said.

“There are pockets of great success within the federal government, usually focused around high-performance computing where the integration of the data center is already done,” he said. “Typically, those pockets are found within organizations where it’s commonplace for the storage, networking and compute teams to sit down directly with their developers and work to build an infrastructure around their application.”

Clater noted that government and commercial adoption will grow as OpenStack matures, builds a solid track record and is able to support a full range of services in key areas such as database as a service, containerization and hardware as a service.

“OpenStack in itself is a very large project; there’s a lot of sub-projects,” Cisco Systems’ Bakshi said. “DoD can take advantage of the sub-projects that are important to them under the OpenStack project, but they don’t have to consume the entire project.”

Potential roadblocks

For a DoD that’s rapidly embracing commercial-off-the-shelf technologies in many different fields, OpenStack leans in the opposite direction. “You don’t go and pull OpenStack off the Web and implement it yourself,” IBM Federal’s Szaki said. “You’re going to buy a distribution and the vendors are going to compete on their value add and their ability to execute.” Security, he noted, is “one area where you would see a differentiator.”

Like many of the technology’s vendors, Red Hat has closely partnered with the OpenStack community to ensure that security goals are reached and maintained. Red Hat is also working with Intel to build trusted compute pools within OpenStack implementations to provide reliable software verification.

Given the fact the OpenStack is evolving very rapidly, DoD’s IT leaders will have work hard to stay on top new releases, updates and other developments arriving at a breakneck pace. “It’s a very fast and somewhat new growing community,” Bakshi said.

DoD will also likely find itself struggling to assemble OpenStack-experienced IT teams due to the general lack of such individuals and keen private-sector competition. “There is limited expertise in the industry vis-à-vis the talent part of it and who can take on OpenStack, deploy it, contribute to it and things of that sort,” Bakshi said. “It’s growing fast, and you will see a lot more experts being developed in the future, but at this current point in time talent is something that’s hard to come by.”

DoD also faces serious a time-consuming delay if it decides to create its own OpenStack experts via training. “It requires a high degree of knowledge of computing and the workings of OpenStack to go about deploying an OpenStack environment,” Bakshi said. Full training, even with experienced IT experts, could take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the individual’s base proficiency.

OpenStack is designed to be highly available from the moment it is deployed and, as it continues to evolve, is becoming increasingly resilient. Yet Clater warned that DoD will have to prepare its move to the new technology both carefully and thoroughly. “It’s imperative that the applications running on OpenStack be built with a cloud-ready mindset and ideas like persisting data to local storage and hard coding dependencies are to be avoided,” he said. Clater added that to achieve maximum efficiency results, OpenStack adopters will want to “forge a partnership between the OpenStack IaaS provider and the application developer.”

Szaki believes that by moving toward OpenStack, DoD is making the right decision for long-term efficiency and cost savings. “I think they will find this a much better approach moving into the future versus what they have today,” he said.