ZeroStack — Simplified and Automated OpenStack

Read­ing Time: 5 min­utes

Clut­ter and con­fu­sion are fail­ures of design, not attrib­ut­es of infor­ma­tion.” ~ Edward Tuft

In the ever-so-neat­ly pack­aged and mar­ket­ed buzz­word bin­go world that we know as “cloud,” there are two gen­er­al­ly accept­ed fla­vors: on-premise, or pri­vate, cloud, and pub­lic cloud. Pub­lic clouds of the most well-known vari­ety are Ama­zon Web Ser­vices (AWS,) and Microsoft Azure. On the pri­vate side you have VMware, if you buy a few-bajil­lion dif­fer­ent soft­ware pack­ages, or Open­Stack, itself a fair­ly unwieldy beast of an ecosys­tem. All achieve rough­ly the same goals and end-state, name­ly allow­ing fast and easy cre­ation and con­sump­tion of large­ly tran­sient, vir­tu­al­ized work­loads. The ben­e­fits and draw­backs of each, how­ev­er, exist in dif­fer­ent spheres.

The pub­lic cloud providers offer very easy to con­sume ser­vices, already built in their envi­ron­ments and on their hard­ware, as secure as we can call any­thing these days, all for an osten­si­bly nom­i­nal fee. Your data lives out­side your data cen­ter, how­ev­er, and can suf­fer from what’s known in the indus­try as “noisy neigh­bor” syn­drome, where­by oth­er users’ appli­ca­tions host­ed on the same hard­ware as yours, can con­sume enough resources to starve your appli­ca­tions. Addi­tion­al­ly, as they say in the val­ley, AWS is very cheap if you fail, it’s very expen­sive if you suc­ceed, mean­ing that the cost of pub­lic cloud looks great at first glance, but once you start con­sum­ing a lot of resources, your costs can quick­ly bal­loon to eye-water­ing lev­els.

The pri­vate cloud ecosys­tems aren’t with­out their own blem­ish­es, though, and while offer­ing a much low­er oper­a­tional cost on paper as you don’t have ongo­ing fees to a provider, and you ulti­mate­ly have more secu­ri­ty and con­trol since your data lives in your own data cen­ters, they tend to be very chal­leng­ing to stand up, and even more com­plex to main­tain. Many com­pa­nies have to increase hir­ing of spe­cial­ized staff just to mon­i­tor and main­tain the sys­tem, and often have to pay con­sul­tants to get the envi­ron­ment built and tuned in the first place.

A visu­al exam­ple from a deck they pre­sent­ed on dur­ing a recent Tech Field Day event shows a tra­di­tion­al mod­el of cloud, and the dif­fer­ences at a high lev­el between pub­lic and pri­vate imple­men­ta­tions of the same:

Cloud Before ZeroStack

Cloud Before ZeroStack

From what I can tell, ZeroStack seems to have been found­ed on the premise that OpenStack—one of the most talked about pri­vate cloud sys­tems out there, and by far the one with the most buzz—is an incred­i­ble prod­uct, but need­less­ly com­pli­cat­ed for all but a few folks. Their core mis­sion to sim­pli­fy and reduce Open­Stack to an easy to use plat­form, deploy­able in min­utes rather than weeks, is one that will undoubt­ed­ly res­onate with a sig­nif­i­cant seg­ment of the IT pop­u­la­tion. In doing so, how­ev­er, they run the risk of col­lid­ing head on with some of the big boys of indus­try.

What ZeroStack does is com­modi­tize Open­Stack into a hard­ware and soft­ware plat­form which can be deployed in under 15 min­utes, a claim which I can ver­i­fy first hand. They ship a box—based on mer­chant hardware—to your loca­tion, you plug it in, answer a few ques­tions, it phones home, and with­in min­utes you have a ful­ly func­tion­ing Open­Stack envi­ron­ment. As any­one who has deployed Open­Stack, even in a basic devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment, can attest, it is very time-con­sum­ing and not entire­ly triv­ial to stand up in any kind of func­tion­ing manner—presumably the end goal.

ZeroStack’s hard­ware is cus­tom built from off-the-shelf com­po­nents, and comes in four dif­fer­ent fla­vors depend­ing on your needs. The servers can “stack” in a scale-out mod­el, and use a dis­trib­uted stor­age fab­ric, dis­trib­uted man­age­ment, and dis­trib­uted SDN fab­ric, across all servers. This allows for large build outs, but per­haps more impor­tant­ly, it allows for seam­less host fail­ure recov­ery through a leader elec­tion mech­a­nism. The more inter­est­ing bit is how they han­dle man­age­ment, and is where we begin to see where we can draw a Mer­a­ki com­par­i­son.

What ZeroStack has done that is the most evolutionary—I won’t say rev­o­lu­tion­ary since this is being done already, more on that in a minute—is moved the man­age­ment com­po­nents of Open­Stack into a cloud (how many abstrac­tions of cloud can we han­dle before the whole thing blows up in a cloud of vague­ly con­sul­tant-smelling mar­ke­tec­ture?) They host this on their own plat­form in their own data cen­ter. This allows you to man­age the sys­tem from any­where, much like what Mer­a­ki did for wire­less net­works.

This can be illus­trat­ed again with a slide from the same pre­sen­ta­tion ref­er­enced above:

Cloud After ZeroStack

Cloud After ZeroStack

By sep­a­rat­ing what we could loose­ly call the con­trol plane from the data plane, to bor­row from the net­work­ing world , the entire­ty of the Open­Stack sys­tem and deploy­ment mod­el is made man­i­fest­ly eas­i­er for the aver­age enti­ty to deploy and con­sume. You rack and stack the hard­ware, point it at the ZeroStack cloud man­age­ment por­tal, and it does the rest. You get a cup of cof­fee and when you’re done you have an on-premise cloud. There are obvi­ous­ly some sub­tleties to the deploy­ment, and extra knobs you can tweak if you choose, but this is far quick­er than a tra­di­tion­al deploy­ment, and should appeal to many peo­ple.

The main risk I see from a long term via­bil­i­ty per­spec­tive is that this mod­el of Open­Stack deploy­ment puts ZeroStack square­ly in the path of at least Cis­co and HP Enter­prise, with their Meta­Pod and Helion CloudSys­tem Enter­prise prod­ucts, respec­tive­ly, which per­form almost entire­ly the same func­tion at a high­er cost point. Cisco’s solu­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, can be more accu­rate­ly com­pared to a VCE vBlock than to the ZeroStack plat­form, the for­mer com­ing pre-racked and plug-in-to-pow­er ready with full-blown UCS com­pute, Nexus 9K switch­ing, and ASR rout­ing. Cisco’s solu­tion has the fur­ther ben­e­fit of being ful­ly deployed and man­aged by Cis­co, and so is quite lit­er­al­ly a plug-and-play solu­tion. HP Enterprise’s Hel­lion CloudSys­tem uti­lizes VMware for the cloud plat­form, but func­tion­al­ly accom­plish­es the same goal of dis­till­ing what can be a com­plex deploy­ment down to a sin­gle pur­chase propo­si­tion.

I think where ZeroStack has an advan­tage, and pos­si­bly an unchal­lenged mar­ket space niche, is in the low­er to mid-tier price points. Many (many, many) com­pa­nies who wish to deploy Open­Stack sim­ply won’t be able to afford the Cis­co or HPE solu­tions, but still have a desire and a need for a sim­pli­fied deploy­ment mod­el. If ZeroStack’s prod­ucts can run in a sta­ble man­ner as well as they can deploy, I think they have a fight­ing chance of remain­ing viable for some time to come. Either that or they’ll estab­lish enough of a mar­ket foot­print, and become enough of a chal­lenge the the big-boys inevitable desire to sell down-stream in a like­ly scaled down prod­uct and price point, that they’ll be acquired for a sur­pris­ing­ly large amount of coinage—not at all out of place for the val­ley.