Commoditization and economies of scale drive cloud computing. We've seen before what commoditization means to the IT industry: It stimulates standardization and consolidation to serve a volume market. The success of x86-based CPUs, which dominate everything from data centers to high-performance computing, is a common example. In the software industry, commoditization raised standards and led to the commercial adoption of open source.
It is impossible to imagine a corporate data center without Linux. Even if it’s not used under the core applications, Linux is present in web servers, routers, firewalls, and storage appliances. Upcoming cloud computing providers face increasing price pressures and must therefore provide greater economies of scale than the majority of corporate data centers. They use Linux heavily as an operating system today.
But open source goes beyond Linux for cloud providers. Many providers of public cloud services (or the more local flavor of virtual private clouds) have realized that developing a full cloud computing management stack requires significant software development efforts. Some of the leading midrange cloud providers, such as Rackspace, as well as several cloud component vendors (such as cloud billing systems) support an open source initiative called OpenStack. The goal is to provide a full cloud management stack based on open source for cloud providers and large-scale corporate data centers, such as NASA. What a Linux distribution was for a traditional server, OpenStack is for a full cloud provider business model, regardless of privacy level — public, private, or virtual private.
The Nebula appliance announced today jumps right into this space and provides a standardized hardware configuration for OpenStack implementations. It offers scaled-out compute power based on commoditized x86 CPUs and standardizes a configuration of switches and other components to glue a large number of these CPUs together. The new VC-backed startup will thus compete head to head with EMC’s Vblock and Microsoft’s Azure appliance; neither of these are based on open source, and the latter isn’t really on the market yet.
But Nebula is more than just a hardware deliverable. Its mission is to transparently standardize the cloud hardware stack. Basically, it’s nothing more than the complex specification Microsoft worked out with its hardware partners (Dell, Fujitsu, and HP) to deliver the Azure appliance to local cloud providers and large-scale private clouds. However, Nebula’s openness is the differentiator; it reminds me a bit of IBM’s approach around the original personal computer back in the 1970s. Sure, it enabled hardware competitors to produce compatible PCs — but it also brought mass adoption of the PC, outperforming Apple over four decades.
If Nebula delivers a compelling price point, it has an appealing approach that could gain significant share in the growing cloud hardware market. If the new company aims to spur a revolution similar to that of the PC, its founders need to tweak their strategy soon: