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Supporting OpenStack Competitors: If Microsoft is doing it, Red Hat must too.

The recent slew of articles from the Wall Street Journal and ReadWriteWeb stating that Red Hat won’t support customers who choose rival OpenStack distribution caused a wave of controversy. Since Mirantis was in the center of many of these discussions, I wanted to shed my perspective on the matter.

First, one needs to understand that Red Hat OS support is a function of the underlying virtualization platform. OpenStack is not a virtualization platform. It is an orchestration layer for a variety of virtualization technologies. You can use OpenStack to orchestrate VMware, Hyper-V, Xen and various flavors of KVM hypervisors.

Red Hat currently does support Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), running on VMware vCenter, Hyper-V or Red Hat’s flavor of the KVM hypervisor. Red Hat does not support customers on RHEL who are running on KVM that ships with any competing Linux distribution such as those shipped by Oracle, Canonical, HP or SUSE. 

If you look at the recent OpenStack user survey, 90% of OpenStack deployments today are not running on RHEL, but rather use other flavors of Linux and KVM, such as Ubuntu or CentOS. That means that 90% of companies that have adopted OpenStack thus far will not be able to run supported instances of RHEL in their cloud.

It also means that seemingly unequivocal statement made by Paul Cormier in his blog is prone to various interpretations:  “Users are free to deploy Red Hat Enterprise Linux with any OpenStack offering, and there is no requirement to use our OpenStack technologies to get a Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscription.”

All of the above has triggered a discussion on the OpenStack foundation mailing list with mild overtones suggesting that Red Hat may be engaging in anticompetitive behavior to corner the OpenStack market.

I cannot speak for Red Hat, but sincerely want to believe that is not true. We are currently in active talks with Red Hat to collaborate on supporting RHEL for customers who choose the Mirantis OpenStack distribution. While Red Hat does not support customers who choose rival OpenStack distributions today, they did not explicitly shut the door on anyone (yet).

I want to believe that the current situation is an unfortunate byproduct of Red Hat’s internal business process. Red Hat is an open source poster child of the client-server computing era. Today we move to the cloud era. In this new era it is important to provide compatibility and support for your operating system, running on a variety of virtualization technologies, and across different private and public clouds.

Red Hat explains that they only certify RHEL to run on a limited set of virtualization technologies, because compatibility testing is a significant effort for them. Decisions on what to support are ROI-driven, they say… While these explanations have technology merit, ultimately they don’t address the issue.

Let’s face it, with 64% share in the enterprise Linux market, Red Hat is in a position to dramatically stifle healthy competition in open source ecosystems tied to Linux. OpenStack is one of the most prominent examples of such an ecosystem. When you come to dominate a particular market, you automatically inherit certain obligations, whether you like it not. Yes, there may be overhead for Red Hat to certify RHEL on many virtualization platforms. But, in my opinion, it is Red Hat’s obligation to invest in this in order to provide customers with choice and access to innovations from vendors besides just Red Hat.

We’ve seen the exact same situation happen before with Microsoft. With Windows Server accounting for 45.8% of overall server market share (vs. 20% for all of Linux) today, Microsoft could be in an excellent position to leverage that to unfairly gain dominance. And exactly because of this dominant position in the server market, Microsoft was forced to launch an SVVP program for certifying third party virtualization technologies against Windows Server. In the case of Microsoft, we have an even playing field and a simple structured process. In the case of Red Hat, it is big gray area, prone to politics and laden with controversy.

Red Hat has contributed greatly to open source and to the OpenStack project in particular. The company is also doing a respectable job of transforming itself into a player with its eye on the future, helping build the new cloud universe on the shoulders of Linux. We welcome the competition and love to have Red Hat around. But, come on, if a monster behemoth with a track record of anti-competitive behavior makes it straightforward for anyone to certify virtualization technologies against their server, Red Hat, as a poster child for open source and no-lock-in, should follow suit.

DISCLAIMER: The above represents my personal stance on the matter and does not reflect the official position of the OpenStack Foundation. 

3 comments

3 Responses

  1. If I take a big step back here, it feels like there is some fairly unfair jabs being taken at Red Hat by many people on this topic.
    From what I see:
    1) Openstack is in the early days and there are 5-8+ versions being built, maybe more coming. And they are all changing every 6 months. For any company, trying to come up with a sane policy on supporting this many moving parts, and from companies that range from smaller ones that may not make it in the long haul, to established large vendors who have been trying to throttle Red Hat for years, is almost impossible right now.
    2) For Red Hat to claim that supporting more combinations of technologies, that are moving fast, is an ROI decision makes full sense to me. And a comparison to Microsoft and Windows is not an apples to apples comparison by any means. Red Hat had quarterly revenue of $400 Million and profits of $59 Million last quarter. Microsoft had revenue of $20 Billion, and profit of almost $7 Billion last quarter. Think about the differences in those numbers when you compare MS with Red Hat and talk about the ability to look at situations that require investments in similar ways.
    3) It feels like a bunch of whining from many people who have jumped on the open source bandwagon, or are continuing to try and game the system (like HP, Oracle and IBM pretty much do) .
    Being flippant about Red Hat and their behavior seems cool to some people in open source, though I believe Red Hat has had to be strong and smart to survive this far, and they will need to continue being so.

    May 16, 2014
    • Bill, thanks for the comments. All reasonable points. Let me address 1-by-1.

      1. While, you are right, there are many OpenStack distributions, most of them orchestrate a fairly limited set of HostOS + KVM permutations. Moreover, those permutations are not vastly different from RHEL KVM. It all boils down to a handful of patches (such as newer version of OVS shipped with the Kernel etc.) Certifying those host configurations is not at all an insurmountable effort. Having a consistent policy across the board for this like in case with MS SVVP (rather than making it a subjective negotiation process) would not only signal to the market that Red Hat is committed to customer choice, but would also make RHEL a stronger player as a guest OS for the cloud.

      2. It is not about the total revenue. MS has many lines of business and most of the 20b you are referring to MS is deriving from sources other than Windows Server. Server business for MS is ~6b, vs 1b for RH. But more importantly, when it comes to the Linux ecosystem (which OpenStack is a part of), Red Hat has bigger market share in that space than MS in the overall server market – 64% vs. 45% – and in that position it has more control to unfairly skew things in its favor. I would argue that Red Hat supporting exclusively RHEL KVM as the host for running RHEL guests is comparable to Microsoft having a policy to only support Windows Server on Hyper-V.

      3. No doubt Red Hat is a strong and smart player and I repeat that we, as a member of the OpenStack community, DO appreciate all the good Red Hat has been doing for OpenStack. I think the issues raised by WSJ, however, are profound in terms of shaping the future of OpenStack and should not be dusted under the carpet.

      May 19, 2014
  2. While this frustrates non-RH OpenStack (OS) vendors that would miss out on RH support, I do not see any obligations on RH’s part. They have obligations to their shareholders and customers, but not rivals. While it might be a little bad form, from a business perspective RH is doing the right thing imo.

    May 19, 2014

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