CloudStack: Citrix's open source service cloud comes of age

cloud server

The dramatic rise of cloud computing services spread over an assortment of public/public and hybrid deployment models across a variety of application types was always liable to sew confusion.

It should be no surprise then that this diverse ecosystem has spawned a collection of standards, platforms, special interest groups and operational methodologies. Put simply, we need some white lines and crash barriers to guide us down the cloud computing superhighway - and we also need a map.

For this reason, we have seen projects such as OpenStack develop. This cloud operating system is designed to control pools of processing, storage and networking resources carried out inside any given datacenter. OpenStack is managed through an admin dashboard so that cloud volumes can be provisioned and managed and monitored "holistically" (as they say). But OpenStack has been discussed at length, so now we turn our attention to CloudStack.

Cloudstack evolution

CloudStack was originally developed by and was subsequently transferred to Citrix during a July 2011 acquisition. Until April 2012 Citrix ran with a dual strategy combining its Project Olympus OpenStack distribution, but this has now ceased to be. In May 2012, Citrix said that it would now take its modestly named CloudPlatform offering forward as the first commercial Apache CloudStack-based distribution.

CloudStack software itself is essentially a highly scalable Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) platform designed to help deploy and manage large networks of virtual machines. Through various releases of code to both the GNU and GPLv3 licences, CloudStack has evolved to become an open source thoroughbred and is now used in all three ‘usual suspects’ of the cloud deployment universe i.e. public, private and/or as part of a hybrid cloud solution.

(Note: One proviso here if we do describe CloudStack as an open source thoroughbred; it exists under the auspices of the Apache Software Foundation and is currently ranked as an "incubating" project, so it does not yet command full Apache project status as such.)

Turnkey networked IaaS, in a box

CloudStack comes with what is effectively the full set of IaaS toolbox mechanics to get a cloud infrastructure laid down. The CloudStack ‘Quick Start Guide’ (if it indeed were a new DVD player) features network service controls, compute orchestration functionality (this is close to ‘DevOps’ and Application Lifecycle Management), a complete native API offering and other core essentials including account management tools and a not unpleasant user interface.

There's still a bit of misunderstanding as to where CloudStack works well, what is still in a state of flux and why its core competencies should be of interest. Citrix's cloud computing and open source ‘catalyst’ (that means expert) Mark Hinkle says that CloudStack excels in numerous areas. "[But] probably the most noticeable is the self-service portal and UI so that you can delegate the creation of infrastructure to others either in the enterprise or as a service provider. The ability to create service offerings and bundle them with networking services is an important feature. Here's a complete list of features though."

Did you get that? CloudStack is a "turnkey networked infrastructure bundling toolkit for elastic clouds" then. Well, that’s not exactly how it is being positioned, but it’s an interesting enough definition to ruminate on as we try to find its true level. Apache itself prefers to say that CloudStack enables, "A utility computing service allowing service providers to offer self-service virtual machine instances, storage volumes and networking configurations over the Internet."

Fundamentally CloudStack is an open source platform that can be used to build cloud computing environments like Amazon's EC2 or similar to the VMware's vCloud Director product.

Hinkle himself insists that CloudStack (as opposed to OpenStack … but then he would say that wouldn’t he?) is of definitely ‘production grade’ quality with numerous large scale deployments being seen all over the world. A presentation entitled Architecting Your Cloud: Lessons Learned From 100 CloudStack Deployments is available for a review of some real world implementations.

So how does CloudStack work?

The Apache Foundation explains that initial CloudStack users (perhaps a customer of a service provider or a department in an organisation) are assigned accounts to provide a so-called "unit of isolation" in the cloud - and accounts are grouped by domains.

According to Apache; "Domains usually contain accounts that have some logical relationship to each other and a set of delegated administrators with some authority over the domain and its subdomains. For example, a service provider with several resellers could create a domain for each reseller. Multiple users can exist in an account. Users are like aliases in the account. Users in the same account are not isolated from each other. Most installations need not surface the notion of users; they just have one user per account."

Is that all clear then? No, it’s probably not going to win the Plain English Campaign award for 2013 is it? So let’s look at some more practical usage deployments.

CloudStack is open (of course) to augmentations and enhancements to its total offering just as you might turbo-charge a sports car or double-glaze your home. Disaster recovery for CloudStack options exists so that service providers can offer integrated Recovery-as-a-Service, and this can indeed make the platform more resilient.

Cloud solutions company Clogeny Technologies says it has been working on CloudStack for the past two years. The firm says the CloudStack platform has different mechanisms for high availability (HA) and disaster recovery systems (DRS) at various levels in the product. Clogeny as a company asserts that CloudStack features like high availability and disaster recovery reduce maintenance outage considerably and ensure that infrastructure is available for maximum time periods. "CloudStack is way ahead in incorporating these features than other cloud providers," says the firm.

Also in the disaster recovery as a service space with compatibility to CloudStack is Vision Solutions Double-Take software. A perambulation and patrol of the integration to CloudStack space does leave the casual browser with the impression that solid enterprise level connections are growing, despite its Apache Foundation “podling” incubation status,

Laurent Lachal, senior analyst for software IT solutions for IT analyst firm Ovum, says Citrix’s initial dual strategy has now become clearer after some rather muddled beginnings.

“The dual OpenStack/CloudStack strategy confused the market. It also divided Citrix’s attention and resources. Citrix had to choose and pick a single platform to bet on. It needed a platform that was ready to cater to the needs of cloud service providers (CSPs), as well as enterprises. CloudStack can now do this and has a proven track record in both markets. By contrast, OpenStack has only just started to prove itself,” he says.

The really fascinating part now starts to come to light. Lachal himself, Ovum as an analyst house, and the entire Apache Software Foundation community are agreed on one major assertion. There is a consensus here that CloudStack is (or at least has the potential to be) “more capable than OpenStack” of competing with VMware technology.

So with CloudStack, Citrix is acting as IaaS vendor looking to support connections to Amazon Web Services (AWS) APIs. Is this then the CloudStack USP? Is providing an enterprise route to building hybrid clouds that connect to Amazon the holy grail of open cloud mechanics, even for the short term perhaps? Or not?

Ovum’s Lachal points out that Citrix’s claim about AWS-compatible is being challenged by a number of commentators. “This challenge is good in that it educates the market about the reality of what being AWS-compatible actually means. When all the different angles from which these commentators approach the issue are taken into account, AWS API support may not be what some people might term ‘lipstick on a pig’, but it nonetheless has limitations and consequences that Citrix needs to spell out.”

Open cloud heavyweights in the ring

So CloudStack technology is in a dynamic state of still-incubating flux with connection points to even the industry’s most high-profile cloud elements being put into question. Seeking further commentary here we look to a discussion between Sebastien Goasguen who is open source cloud evangelist at Citrix in conversation with Richard Morrell, Red Hat’s lead cloud evangelist.

As the Citrix CloudStack heavy hitter Goasguen is of course up tempo about the platform and its future potential. “What you see with cloud at the infrastructure layer is that open source is leading. You need to lose control to gain control and you need to enable developers to work with the tools that they want. In terms of Citrix now working with CloudStack we are working to build connection points all over, so SaaS storage is big and there are many other areas.”

"Lots of developers are working on CloudStack and working to create the open plug ins that we will all need. If the CIO is worried about standardisation of APIs in the cloud, we are working to keep everything as open as possible and we are working to make sure this happens with Delta cloud where this technology grows. If you look back at web services we had so many humongous standards and when REST came along, that was a good thing. What Delta cloud is doing reflects this in many ways," added Goasguen.

What’s next for CloudStack then? More of all of the above for sure i.e. augmentation and enhancement with connectivity and integration at the core typifies much of what is going on right now.

More of the industry appears to be quietly impressed with Citrix than anything else. But that would never do, hence perhaps why we hear an equal portion of denigration and denunciation to balance all those in favour of current developments. But open source surely thrives on such honesty, so watch CloudStack seriously.