The OpenStack identity crisis

Does OpenStack have an identity crisis? I think it does, and solving it will help the project establish itself in the minds of infrastructure deciders.

I spent two years working with a team primarily dedicated to OpenStack development and thanks to that had the opportunity to attend several Summits as well as observe multiple OpenStack project communities.

What I learned is that if you ask ten Stackers, “What is OpenStack?” you’ll receive ten different answers. Even in discussions with members of the OpenStack TC, I was never able to get a consistent answer to what ought to be a very simple question.

OpenStack has an identity crisis. It doesn’t appear to know what it is, or for whom. I feel this was exacerbated by the Big Tent initiative, which was well-considered and -intentioned, but in the end just muddied the waters of what it meant to be “OpenStack.”

Recently the OpenStack Foundation announced that it’s leaving the Big Tent in its rearview mirror. Perhaps this is the turning point? By moving on from the Big Tent experiment, OpenStack is now free to define what it means to be, well, OpenStack. Establishing a consistent identity and branding across this very large project will help it regain the momentum it’s been losing as several of its now-former marquee corporate members withdraw from their public cloud attempts and the OpenStack Innovation Center.

Unfortunately, the OpenStack Foundation may not take this opportunity. Instead, it appears that rather than pause to define what it means to be OpenStack, it’s considering opening the Foundation to other projects. The logic here appears to be that any technology in the “stack” can be “open,” so why shouldn’t that technology live under the umbrella of the OpenStack Foundation?

Is the OpenStack Foundation simply upgrading from the Big Tent to the Really Actually Quite Massive Tent? If the Big Tent muddied the waters of OpenStack identity, then this has the potential to convert it to opaque sludge. Without a very firm grasp on what it means to be OpenStack: The Project, how will the Foundation be able to distinguish between what’s an OpenStack Project and what’s merely an open stack project?

As well, this feels like a bit of a land grab. In the past few years the Linux Foundation (and especially its subsidiary the Cloud Native Computing Foundation) has been growing by leaps and bounds, bringing projects into its auspices nearly every week. Having apparently thrown off the limitation of tending for merely Linux business interests, the Linux Foundation now wardens dozens of open source projects, as well as bringing on dozens of new member companies. The Linux Foundation is now doing quite well, largely due to this expansion. Did the OpenStack Foundation look to LF and think, “Well, if it worked for them…”? Is this OpenStack’s move to regain relevancy and mindshare as big name member companies (such as IBM and HPE) pull away from their OpenStack-driven initiatives, throwing their support elsewhere in the infrastructure ecosystem?

Whatever the reason, it appears the OpenStack Foundation is still only considering welcoming other open stack projects into its membership. Hopefully before they do that they’ll pause for however long it takes not only to define what it means to be OpenStack in this post-Big-Tent world, but also to communicate that to all of its existing contributors, operators, and member organisations. The next time someone asks ten Stackers, “What is OpenStack?” it would be great to receive a single answer.