Rackspace is finally putting its money where its mouth is regarding the OpenStack cloud computing standard, and has started deploying so-called next-generation cloud servers, which are based on this open source cloud computing project. So what exactly is the OpenStack, and why should you care?

OpenStack is a self-proclaimed open source cloud computing platform. What this really means is that it consists of a series of open source projects that deliver the fundamental blocks for anyone who wants to build their own cloud: virtualized computational capacity, object storage, hard disk and storage virtualization and so on. Rackspace was one of the founders of this project, together with NASA, but had, until yesterday, avoided using it on production systems. It has recently gained several high-profile supporters such as IBM and Red Hat, and now has more than 150 companies on board. There are already several deployed clouds that run entirely on OpenStack software, but this latest Rackspace move is perhaps the most audacious one. Everyone’s eyes will be on this deployment to see how it fares handling the demands of one of the largest players in the cloud industry.

OpenStack competes both with proprietary cloud offerings and with other open source alternatives. CloudStack, backed by Citrix – a heavyweight in the corporate virtualization market – is one of the top contenders in the open source space. It is also widely adopted by several companies, and presents a viable alternative to the OpenStack in terms of an open source cloud platform. Another large project in this space is OpenNebula, another open source data virtualization platform.

The other large competitors are in the private arena. VMware’s vCloud offering is being deployed by several IaaS players all over the world. It’s a private solution bringing to the table the same functionality as its open source counterparts, but it has one great advantage: a lot of enterprises are already familiar with VMware technology, and already make use of it today. Some cloud providers using this technology today are making the best of this knowledge by allowing these enterprises to load their own virtual machine images to cloud servers.

While not a direct competitor, Amazon is a major threat to these projects. Unlike most players in the IaaS space, Amazon’s cloud is based on its own proprietary technology and architecture, closed-off from others in the market. It is compatible with Eucalyptus, a private cloud platform, but with not much else. Since Amazon does not sell or license its underlying technology to other players (yet), it isn’t a direct competitor. At the same time, its market power could make it a de-facto standard, or at least prevent others from achieving market dominance.

We are witnessing today the first moves in a cloud platform war that may well establish future standards for cloud computing platforms. As the needs of users – especially large enterprise users with legacy systems and a much better understanding of risk – force providers towards interoperability, the largest players are going to be the standard setters. To occupy this place, each market leader is backing its own platform. There is a lot more riding on Rackspace’s OpenStack implementation than simple service improvements. The reputation of the project goes as this deployment goes, and part of the future of the cloud could well be shaped by its success or failure. For everyone interested in cloud computing, this is the time to start watching closely what companies are doing.