Piston Cloud, the Red Hat of OpenStack Cloud Computing?

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With the recent buzz around the OpenStack project, momentum behind open source cloud development is building. We’re now seeing an early ecosystem of companies and products built around OpenStack – a goal that Rackspace’s Lew Moorman laid out for the project when it launched two years ago.

“We hope to build a vibrant business community around this,” Moorman said in a 2010 OSCON presentation. “If companies can build around OpenStack it’s going to pay for developers to continue to give back.”

Piston Cloud Computing was one of the first to jump into the fray as an Infrastructure-as-a-Service startup built on the OpenStack framework. The one-year-old company is both contributing to and seizing the momentum behind OpenStack as the project’s only distribution (so far).

We talked recently with Christopher MacGown, a Piston Cloud co-founder and CTO, about the kind of open source ecosystem he sees developing around OpenStack and his company’s claim as the Red Hat of OpenStack.

Linux.com: There are now several IT companies built around OpenStack, mostly offering services, how are you different?

Christopher MacGown: We’re primarily a product company. We’ve built the first of many distributions of OpenStack. We’re also private cloud focused versus those focused on OpenStack-based public clouds.

We’re one of the few companies for whom OpenStack is the big bet for our company. We succeed when OpenStack succeeds. Whereas some of these other companies have services divisions or other open source projects they can fall back on.

Linux.com: How are you integrated with OpenStack?

MacGown: At Piston Cloud we’re amongst the founders of OpenStack. My fellow cofounders were both at NASA and worked on the Nebula project, one of the key technologies behind OpenStack. I was at Rackspace at the time and trying to figure out how to make it open source.

We’re still really involved with the project. I’m on the Nova Core team for OpenStack compute. And several engineers are on core teams and the new Cinder project as well.

Linux.com: Why is it worthwhile to gamble your whole company on OpenStack?

MacGown: In open source software it’s not the actual software that wins, it’s the ecosystem that builds services or applications around it that wins. Linux won because the ecosystem was so much larger than the BSD/s. There’s a huge ecosystem around OpenStack. That makes it a good bet.

Linux.com: To quote Wired in a recent article: Who will be the Red Hat of OpenStack?

MacGown: We’ve always described ourselves as the Red Hat of OpenStack, though that’s become a bit funnier since Red Hat has joined OpenStack. They’re not as focused on Infrastructure-as-a-Service as we are. So we think we can still make that claim.

Our competitive advantage is we’re the only people who have built large scalable clouds. Joshua (McKenty) helped build the first certified regulated cloud for NASA, which was used by the White House. We understand regulation and we built the first implementation of Cloud Audit API, and open sourced that framework. We understand the space and believe that other people won’t actually be able to compete with us on the advantage.

Linux.com: Is open source cloud heating up? Why now?

MacGown: It really is. Open source cloud is heating up now because so many people see the Amazon model and realize it’s going to lock them in long term and don’t want to turn Amazon into next IBM. They’re realizing they can actually drive the development to meet their needs better than if using other proprietary solutions such as KWS or VMWare.

Linux.com: What are some of the trends we should be paying attention to in the open cloud space right now?

MacGown: The licensing model is moving away from general public license (GPL) and transitioning to a freer, more open licensing. That enables companies to do more around open core proprietary extensions without feeling like they’re going to violate their own source code with the GPL. There’s a trend toward Apache licensing. On the tech side there’s a lot of research and development in software-defined networking.

Linux.com: How does software-defined networking fit in with open source cloud?

MacGown: When it becomes something people understand and view the benefit for, they’ll be able to build out federate cloud environments similar to how we build out web properties now. Everybody uses Apache, some use IIS, but when you use a web browser everything is the same with your experience. Back ends might not be identical but you have the same experience as an end user of the software or virtualization pieces directly and use that across cloud providers and platforms.

Linux.com: Has this been a focus of the OpenStack project?

MacGown: It’s definitely a focus. Companies like Cisco and Dell have contributed heavily. And with federation in general there’s a lot of expectation and work being done from the humanitarian and scientific computing communities.

Linux.com: Talk about some of the challenges of the open cloud and OpenStack project and your niche in the market.

MacGown: One of the main challenges is nobody’s quite sure what cloud means. With the OpenStack project in particular that’s very similar. You have a lot of excitement and driving that in a single direction that’s 80-90 percent for everyone has been historically difficult.

The work that’s been done around the foundation to put the control directly in the hands of the community will help that. There are efforts to formalize the relationship and the decision making structure.

Linux.com: Your startup is less than two years old now, how far have you come? Where are you headed?

MacGown: We raised series A funding in July of last year, announced a preview of our product, Piston Enterprise OS (pentOS) in September 2011 and pentOS went general availability in January of this year.

Our goal for the year is we’re going to have a great release of OpanStack Essex around the middle to the end of the third quarter. We were the first to release a distro of Diablo, but we don’t want to be the first for Essex. (Canonical plans to have Essex first.) We want to be the stately gravitas distro where we support it and know all about it and can guarantee the security of it.

To learn more about how open source is impacting the future of cloud computing, check out The Linux Foundation’s latest event CloudOpen.