Will IBM and Amazon Show Red Hat the Way to the Cloud?

Today we have two pieces of cloud-market change, and as we’ll see, it’s important to consider the two as parallel developments.  One involves Red Hat, and the other IBM.

A while back, I commented that Red Hat’s absence from the cloud space was puzzling from a strategy perspective and perhaps harmful to the company’s prospects.  Well, they’re fixing that by creating some packages based around their Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and OpenStack.  What distinguishes Red Hat’s approach is that they’re integrating the cloud into their commercial Linux platform, one that’s been hardened to support high-value applications and even service provider missions.  They’re also likely going to harden OpenStack too, and provide the combination with solid professional support.  The question is whether they can create a differentiable model at this point in the market.

That’s also a question for IBM, who recently appealed a government decision to base the CIA cloud buy on Amazon rather than IBM despite the fact that IBM was cheaper.  The reason was that Amazon offered more “platform services” that added value and facilitated integration of the cloud and web-based applications and services.  In effect, the GAO review said that Amazon was more of a PaaS than IBM, which implies that PaaS is better than IaaS even if it’s a bit more expensive.

The PaaS/IaaS wars don’t directly impact Red Hat because it’s generally accepted that IaaS platforms are the most logical foundation for PaaS.  The problem is indirect; PaaS is “better” than IaaS because it can displace more cost in a public cloud, offers potentially better application development options in a private cloud, and above all has features—those platform services—that can differentiate a PaaS offering.  If PaaS has more features and more differentiators than IaaS at the service side, so it does at the platform level.

Which is what Red Hat now has to consider.  It has two cloud offerings on the table now.  One is aimed at large enterprises and public providers and focused on building big, efficient, clouds.  The other is for your typical hybrid-cloud enterprise.  Both missions could use a dose of platform services, as Amazon has proved.  What services will Red Hat settle on?  The initial announcement of Red Hat’s cloud was accompanied by a storage-integration announcement.  Red Hat’s storage will support OpenStack’s Block Storage (Cinder), Image Service (Glance) and Object Storage (Swift), which is good but not enough.  Red Hat will have to settle pretty quickly on a DevOps standard as well, and I expect something will come out in that area.  Similarly, I think Red Hat will be developing its own Quantum approach.  While all of this brings the major interfaces of OpenStack under one company roof, it doesn’t necessarily raise the bar for PaaS.

At this point in cloud evolution, I think Red Hat needs a bully pulpit, a specific mission that will drive its cloud.  In the cloud provider/carrier space that mission could be Network Functions Virtualization, and in the hybrid cloud area it could be supporting multi-dimensional elasticity in business applications.  Best of all, these missions could be converging on a single architecture.

NFV is a framework for hosting network features in the cloud (though the body is reluctant to accept that the cloud is the only platform that’s suitable).  This activity demands a combination of composition agility and operational integration that’s totally absent in the cloud today, and totally necessary if the cloud is to really support mission-critical apps.  Thus, both of Red Hat’s cloud packages could benefit from a dose of NFV-like orchestration and management.  NFV will also demand the integration of shared-function components (IMS, DNS) and per-user components (firewall, NAT) into a single service, as well as support for services that are all one or the other.  That’s a value to enterprise application architectures too, and the shared-function components might be a good way of describing platform services in general.

Which, I think, is the key to Red Hat’s success, because Amazon/IBM just proved it to be.  PaaS differs from IaaS in the inclusion in the former of platform services.  Quantum and Glance and Cinder and Swift are precursors of what must become a wide range of platform services, some of which will be generally useful and some of which will be more mission-specific.  Obviously Red Hat can’t support them all, but they could build a framework for their support through the support of NFV.  Right now there’s no real articulated computer-vendor, cloud-stack, support for NFV out there—nor of course much more than a few blown kisses from other types of vendors, in fact.  This is a perfect opportunity to recognize NFV for what it is—the on-ramp to a future supercloud architecture.

I’m not seeing an NFV behind every bush here, I’m simply saying that NFV is one game that has almost universal potential, and you need that if you’re a late-comer.  You’ve got to jump ahead of the pack if you enter the market late.  Red Hat has definitely done the late-entry part and now has to get to the jumping part.  The evolution of application software demands a PaaS architecture that makes cloud services explicit platform services.  NFV provides a mechanism to build platform services.  QED.

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