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.

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