Moving On

It’s been a great run, but my days in the OpenStack world are coming to an end. As some of you know already, I have accepted an offer to work for DataRobot. I only know bits and pieces of what I will be working on there, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be on OpenStack. And that’s OK with me, as I’ve been working on OpenStack in one form or another for 10 years now.

Wait a moment, you say – OpenStack is only 9 years old! Well, before the OpenStack project was started, I worked on Swift briefly when it was an internal, proprietary project at Rackspace. After that I switched to the Cloud Servers team, which was the team that started Nova with NASA. So yeah, it’s been a full decade. That’s a loooonnnnggg time to be on any development project!

So the feelings of burnout combined with the shift away from OpenStack within IBM made moving to DataRobot a very attractive option. And after having done several video interviews with the people there and getting their impression of life at DataRobot, I’m that much more excited to be joining that team. I’m sure that for the first few months it will be like drinking from the proverbial fire hose, and that’s perfectly fine by me. It’s been much too long since I’ve pushed the reset button for my career.

Over these past 10 years I have made many professional contacts, some of whom I consider true friends. I will miss the OpenStack community, and I hope to run into many of you at future tech events – PyCon, anyone?

Why OpenStack Failed, or How I Came to Love the Idea of a BDFL

OK, so the title of this is a bit clickbait-y, but let me explain. By some measures, OpenStack is a tremendous success, being used to power several public clouds and many well-known businesses. But it has failed to become a powerful player in the cloud space, and I believe the reason is not technical in nature, but a lack of leadership.

OpenStack began as a collaboration between Rackspace, a commercial, for-profit business, and a consulting group working for NASA. While there were several companies involved in the beginning, Rackspace dominated by sheer numbers. This dominance was a concern to many companies – why should they contribute their time and resources to a project that might only benefit Rackspace? This fear was not entirely unfounded, as the OpenStack API was initially created to match Rackspace’s legacy cloud API, and much of the early naming of things matched Rackspace’s terminology – I mean, who ever thought of referring to virtual machines as “servers”? But that matched the “Cloud Servers” branding that Rackspace used for its cloud offering, and that name, as well as the use of “flavor” for instance sizing, persist today. The early governance was democratic, but when one company has many more votes than the others…

The executives at Rackspace were aware of this concern, and quickly created the OpenStack Foundation, which would be an independent entity that would own the intellectual property, helping to guarantee that one commercial company would not control the destiny of OpenStack. More subtly, though, it also engendered a deep distrust of any sort of top-down control over the direction of the software development. Each project within OpenStack was free to pretty much do things however they wanted, as long as they remained within the bounds of the Four Opens: Open Source, Open Design, Open Development, and Open Community.

That sound pretty good, right? I mean, who needs someone imposing their opinions on you?

Well, it turns out that OpenStack needed that. For those who don’t know the term “BDFL“, it is an acronym for “Benevolent Dictator For Life”. It means that the software created under a BDFL is opinionated, but it is also consistently opinionated. A benevolent dictator listens to the various voices asking for features, or designing an API, and makes a decision based on the overall good of the project, and not on things like favoring corporate interests for big contributors, or strong personalities that otherwise dominate design discussions. Can you imagine what AWS would be like if each group within could just decide how they wanted to do things? The imposition of the design from above assures AWS that each of its projects can work easily with others.

The closest thing to that in OpenStack is the Technical Committee (TC), which “is an elected group that represents the contributors to the open source project, and has oversight on all technical matters”. Despite the typical meaning of “oversight”, the TC is essentially a suggestion body, and has no real enforcement power. They can spend months agonizing over the wording of mission statements and community goals, but shy away from anything that might appear to be a directive that others must do. I don’t think the word “must” is in their vocabulary.

They also bend over backwards to avoid potentially offending anyone. Here is one example from my interactions with them: one of the things the TC does is “tag” projects, so that newcomers to OpenStack can get a better idea how mature a particular project is, or how stable, etc. One of the proposed tags was to warn potential users that a project was primarily being developed by a single company; the concern is that all it would take is one manager at that company to decide to re-assign their employees, and the project would be dead. This is a very valid concern for open source projects, and it was proposed that a tag named “team:diverse-affiliation-danger” be created to flag such projects. What followed was much back-and-forth on the review of the proposal as well as in TC meetings about how the tag name was negative and would hurt people’s feelings, how it would be seen as an attack against a project, that it was more of a stick rather than a carrot, etc. All of this hand-wringing over an objective measurement of the content of a project’s current level of activity. (Epilogue: they ended up making it a positive-sounding tag: “team:single-vendor”, and no tears were shed)

Having ineffective leadership like the TC has ripple effects throughout all of OpenStack. Each project is an island, and calls its own shots. So when two projects need to interact, they both see it from the perspective of “how will this affect me?” instead of “how will this improve OpenStack?”. This results in protracted discussions about interfaces and who will do what thing in what order. And when I say “protracted”, I don’t just mean weeks or months; some, such as the CyborgNova integration discussions, have dragged on for two years! I cannot imaging that happening in a world with an OpenStack BDFL. This inter-project friction slows down development of OpenStack as a whole, and in my opinion, contributes to developer dissatisfaction.

So what would OpenStack have been like if it had had a BDFL? Of course, that would depend entirely on the individual, but I can say this: it would have flamed out very quickly with a poor BDFL, or it would be a much better product with a much higher adoption with a good one. Back in 2013 I had predicted that OpenStack would eventually rival the commercial clouds in much the same manner that Linux now dominates the internet over proprietary operating systems. In the early days of the internet, the ability for people to download and play with free software such as the LAMP stack enabled people with big ideas but small budgets to turn those ideas into reality. OpenStack began in the early days of cloud computing, and it seemed logical that having a freely-available alternative to the commercial clouds might likewise result in new cloud-native creations becoming reality. It was a believable prediction, but I missed the effect that a lack of coordination from above would have on OpenStack achieving the potential to fill that role.

By the way, many people point to Linux and its BDFL, Linus Torvalds, as the argument against having a BDFL, as Linus has repeatedly behaved as an offensive ass towards others when he didn’t like their ideas. But ass or not, Linux succeeded because of having that single opinion consistently shaping its development. Most BDFLs, though, are not insufferable asses, and their projects are better off as a result.

Fanatical Support

“Fanatical Support®” – that’s the slogan for my former employer, Rackspace. It meant that they would do whatever it took to make their customers successful. From their own website:

Fanatical Support® Happens Anytime, Anywhere, and Any Way Imaginable at Rackspace

It’s the no excuses, no exceptions, can-do way of thinking that Rackers (our employees) bring to work every day. Your complete satisfaction is our sole ambition. Anything less is unacceptable.

Sounds great, right? This sort of approach to customer service is something I have always believed in. And it was my philosophy when I ran my own companies, too. Conversely, nothing annoys me more than a company that won’t give good service to their customers. So when I joined Rackspace, I felt right at home.

Back in 2012 I was asked to create an SDK in Python for the Rackspace Cloud, which was based on OpenStack. This would allow our customers to more easily develop applications that used the cloud, as the SDK would handle the minutiae of dealing with the API, and allow developers to focus on the tasks they needed to carry out. This SDK, called pyrax, was very popular, and when I eventually left Rackspace in 2014, it was quite stable, with maybe a few outstanding small bugs.

Our team at Rackspace promoted pyrax, as well as our SDKs for other languages, as “officially supported” products. Prior to the development of official SDKs, some people within the company had developed some quick and dirty toolkits in their spare time that customers began using, only to find out some time later when they had an issue that the original developer had moved on, and no one knew how to correct problems. So we told developers to use these official SDKs, and they would always be supported.

However, a few years later there was a movement within the OpenStack community to build a brand-new SDK for Python, so being good community citizens, we planned on supporting that tool, and helping our customers transition from pyrax to the OpenStackSDK for Python. That was in January of 2014. Three and a half years later, this has still not been done. The OpenStackSDK has still not reached a 1.0 release, which in itself is not that big a deal to me. What is a big deal is that the promise for transitioning customers from pyrax to this new tool was never kept. A few years ago the maintainers began replying to issues and pull requests stating that pyrax was deprecated in favor of the OpenStackSDK, but no tools or documentation to help move to the new tool have been released.

What’s worse, is that Rackspace now actively refuses to make even the smallest of fixes to pyrax, even though they would require no significant developer time to verify. At this point, I take this personally. For years I went to conference after conference promoting this tool, and personally promising people that we would always support it. I fought internally at Rackspace to have upper management commit to supporting these tools with guaranteed headcount backing them before we would publish them as officially supported tools. And now I’m extremely sad to see Rackspace abandon these people who trusted my words.

So here’s what I will do: I have a fork of pyax on my GitHub account. While my current job doesn’t afford me the time to actively contribute much to pyrax, I will review and accept pull requests, and try to answer support questions.

Rackspace may have broken its promises and abandoned its customers, but I cannot do that. These may not be my customers, but they are my community.

Is Swift OpenStack?

There has been some discussion recently on the OpenStack Technical Committee about adding Golang as a “supported” language within OpenStack. This arose because the Swift project had recently run into some serious performance issues, which they solved by re-writing the bottleneck process in Golang with much success. I’m not writing here to debate the merits of making OpenStack more polyglot (it’s no secret that I oppose that), but instead, I want to address the issue of Swift not behaving like the rest of OpenStack.

Doug Hellman summarized this feeling well, originally writing it in a pastebin, but then copying it into a review comment on the TC proposal. Essentially, it says that while Swift makes some efforts to do things the “OpenStack Way”, it doesn’t hesitate to follow its own preferences when it chooses to.

I believe that there is good reason for this, and I think that people either don’t know or forget a lot of the history of OpenStack when they discuss Swift. Here’s some background to clarify:

Back in the late ’00s, Rackspace had a budding public cloud business (note: I worked for Rackspace from 2008-2014). It had bought Slicehost, a company with a closed-source VPS system that it used as the basis for its Cloud Servers product, and had developed a proprietary object storage system called NAST (Not Another S Three: S3, get it?). They began hitting limits with NAST fairly soon – it was simply too slow. So it was decided to write a new system with scalability in mind that would perform orders of magnitude better than NAST; this was named ‘Swift’ (for obvious reasons). Swift was developed in-house as a proprietary software project. The development team was a small, close-knit group of guys who had known each other for years. I joined the Swift development team briefly in 2009, but as I was the only team member working remotely, I was at a significant disadvantage, and found it really difficult to contribute much. When I learned that Rackspace was forming a distributed team to rewrite the Cloud Servers software, which was also beginning to hit scalability limits, I switched to that team. For a while we focused on keeping the Slicehost code running while starting to discuss the architecture of the new system. Meanwhile the Swift team continued to make strong progress, releasing Swift into production in the spring of 2010, several months before OpenStack was announced.

At roughly the same time, the other main part of OpenStack, Nova, was being started by some developers working for NASA. It worked, but it was, shall we say, a little rough in spots, and lacked some very important features. But since Nova had a lot of the things that Rackspace was looking for, we started talking with NASA about working together, which led to the creation of OpenStack. So while Rackspace was a major contributor to Nova development back then, from the beginning we had to work with people from a wide variety of companies, and it was this interaction that formed the basis of the open development process that is now the hallmark of OpenStack. Most of the projects in OpenStack today grew out of Nova (Glance, Neutron, Cinder), or are built on top of Nova (Trove, Heat, Watcher). So when we talk about the “OpenStack Way”, it really is more accurately thought of as the “Nova” way, since Nova was only half of OpenStack. These two original halves of OpenStack were built very differently, and that is reflected in their different cultures. So I don’t find it surprising that Swift behaves very differently. And while many more people work on it now than just the original team from Rackspace, many of that original team are still developing Swift today.

I do find it somewhat strange that Swift is being criticized for having “resisted following so many other existing community policies related to consistency”. They are and always have been distinct from Nova, and that goes for the community that sprang up around Nova. It feels really odd to ignore that history, and sweep Swift’s contributions away, or disparage their team’s intentions, because they work differently. So while I oppose the addition of languages other than Python for non-web and non-shell programming, I also feel that we should let Swift be Swift and let them continue to be a distinct part of OpenStack. Requiring Swift to behave like Nova and its offspring is as odd a thought as requiring Nova et. al. to run their projects like Swift.

A New (But Familiar) Adventure

OK, I admit it: I haven’t been posting here as regularly as I should be. It’s not like my life is so boring, or that I haven’t had any interesting thoughts to share. Rather, it’s because I have been so busy and my life changing so fast that I haven’t had the time to sit down, catch my breath, and write things down. I hope to be able to change that moving forward.

Today is the beginning of one of those changes: I start my new job as an OpenStack developer for IBM. In a way I feel like I’m coming back to a familiar world, even though I’ve never worked for IBM before. I was involved in the creation and initial design of OpenStack, and have always felt that it was partially “my baby” (ok, a very small part, but mine nonetheless). I left active involvement with OpenStack a few years ago to start the Developer Experience effort at Rackspace, and have only been tangentially working on OpenStack during that time. With the move to IBM, my focus will once again be on OpenStack, and I couldn’t be happier.