Nearly a year and a half ago, HP told the world it would offer a cloud service based on Microsoft’s Windows Azure, a means of building and deploying applications over the net. We’re still waiting for this service to arrive, but in the meantime, HP has embraced the open source alternative to Windows Azure: VMware’s Cloud Foundry.
HP is currently running the VMware platform atop the cloud service it privately introduced to a small number of testers earlier this fall. In all likelihood, the company will eventually make good on its Windows Azure promise, but at the same time, it’s fully committed to Cloud Foundry, and the platform will be part of HP’s cloud service when it’s unofficially unveiled in spring.
The move is a boost for VMware’s project, which seeks to provide a common way of building what are typically called “platform clouds.” VMware runs its own Cloud Foundry service — also in beta — and several outside outfits have deployed the platform in recent months, but HP is certainly the biggest name to do so. VMware aims to create a cloud “ecosystem” where applications can span disparate services — or even move from service to service.
But in adopting Cloud Foundry, HP is also moving its own cause forward. Now run by ex-IBM man Zorawar “Biri” Singh, the HP cloud services group is not only embracing open source projects that take a more egalitarian approach than cloud services such as Microsoft Azure, Google App Engine, or even Amazon Web Services. It’s moving with a speed you have to admire in such a large company. Cloud Foundry was opened sourced just seven months ago.
Hand of Singh
Biri Singh has a handshake that grabs your attention. You get the distinct impression that when he joined HP this past May, he took hold of the Cloud services group and promptly moved it where to he wanted it to be.
Before his arrival, the rumor was that HP was building a “public cloud” based on proprietary technology developed at HP Labs. But little more than four months later, Singh and his crew unveiled a “beta” cloud service to a small group of testers, and it was based on OpenStack, an open source platform founded by NASA and Rackspace.
This about-face showed not only that HP is determined to compete with the Amazons of the world, but that it may actually be nimble enough — and open minded enough — to do so. With its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Simple Storage Service (S3), and other web services, Amazon pioneered the art of delivering infrastructure resources over the net, including virtual servers and storage. With OpenStack, HP aims to mimic Amazon Web Services, but in a way that plays nicely with other clouds. OpenStack can be run anywhere, by anyone.
Now, Singh and company have reaffirmed their approach with Cloud Foundry, a platform that lets developers build and host applications online without worrying about the underlying infrastructure. On HP’s beta service, Cloud Foundry runs atop OpenStack.
Public Meers Private
Biri Singh and the rest of the HP Cloud Services braintrust live in separate parts of the country. As befits a team that’s building a cloud service, they typically collaborate via the net. But on occasion, they come together for a few days of crash meetings at a central location. This week, they met at a hotel near the San Francisco airport, and in the afteroon, they stepped into a side room to show us their beta service, including its use of Cloud Foundry
Singh acknowledged that the original idea was to run HP’s cloud atop technology developed inside the company, but somewhere along the way, his team decided to fold at least some of this proprietary technology into OpenStack — and use that as the basis for the service. According to Singh and Patrick Scaglia, the chief technology officer of the cloud services group, HP will at some point contribute this work back to the open source community. But they didn’t discuss what this technology does.
OpenStack is a means of building what are commonly called “infrastructure clouds,” online services that provide access to virtual computing resources you can scale up and down as needed. These might be “public clouds” –- services such as Amazon’s AWS that can be used by anyone –- or they might be “private clouds” used within a particular company.
HP is building a public cloud, but in using OpenStack, it wants to create a service that dovetails with private clouds set up behind the firewall. Considering that HP is also a company that helps businesses forge infrastructure inside their own data centers, this only stands to reason.
“We want to provide hybrid clouds,” Singh said, referring to services that span the public and private. “As HP, we have to be able to connect the dots there.”
Like Amazon. And Beyond
In addition to offering raw computing resources over the web, HP’s public cloud will serve up online versions of common applications from atop its OpenStack base, including databases and other back-end tools as well as office tools such as the HR application offered by Silicon Valley outfit Workday. Amazon offers similar applications atop EC2 and S3.
Going beyond Amazon, HP will also use Cloud Foundry to provide a “platform cloud.” You’ll have a choice. You can use the raw infrastructure provided by OpenStack. Or you can build applications at a higher level with Cloud Foundry.
Like OpenStack, Cloud Foundry can be run anywhere. Once again, you’ll have the option of using the service in tandem with other services or private platform clouds. CEO Paul Maritz bills Cloud Foundry as an open source “cloud operating system.” The idea, he says, is to avoid getting “locked-in” to clouds from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.
“We need to create the 21st century equivalent of Linux, which gives you a certain degree of isolation, abstraction, and portability across clouds,” he told us earlier in the week. “If you’re a developer, you need a set of services that can make your life easy, but that don’t bind you forever and a day to the stack of one vendor.”
Cloud Building Blocks
According to Singh and Scaglia, HP’s cloud will run in multiple HP data centers across the country and eventually across the world, and these facilities will be constructed using HP’s “EcoPods,” modular data centers that can be shipped across the globe and pieced together into larger data centers. “These are data centers optimized for a cloud,” said Scaglia.
“If you’re building a cloud service, your data center is going to be different. Your network is going to be different. Your ratio of servers to network will be very different. Your cost of operation needs to be very different. Your uptime needs to be different. They’re can’t really have downtime.”
This too follows technology pioneered by a big name web player. The modular data center originated at Google, after CEO Larry Page latched onto an idea originally floated by the Internet Archive. But HP is going further, seizing on ideas incubated by the big web names and taking them to a wider audience. At least, that’s the plan.
Yes, HP is a bit late to the cloud party — even Dell has launched its own public cloud — and much of the HP pitch is still mere theory. After all, this is a beta service. But when you talk with Biri Singh, you get the feeling that HP’s cloud is in good hands.
Cade Metz is the editor of Wired Enterprise. Got a NEWS TIP related to this story -- or to anything else in the world of big tech? Please e-mail him: cade_metz at wired.com.