Off The Charts

Earlier this week, I was asked to present at the Silicon Valley Forum SIG event entitled “OpenStack – How Big Can This Get?”, which brought together some of the leading lights from the OpenStack community and helped deliver a very focused session, providing the packed and attentive audience with an incredibly honest assessment of the journey so far. The event was neatly summarized here.

Participating in these sessions, while educating genuinely interested people who are there to learn, is something I find incredibly rewarding, personally. Sharing the stage with luminaries such as Cisco’s Rick Clark & James Urquhart, Rackspace’s Vish Ishaya, Piston’s Josh McKenty and Cloudscaling’s Joe Arnold is, quite simply, always a pleasure and frankly, today’s dull and overly cloud-washed world needs more events with more people like this on the stage.

Between them, they possess some serious smarts, coupled with an unbridled passion for what they do. It’s abundantly clear that these guys, along with some of my Citrix buddies, including Ewan Mellor of course, are absolutely responsible for the huge traction OpenStack has obtained. And, despite it’s admitted shortcomings (some of which were laid bare in front of the audience) it’s hard to argue that the worldwide interest it has generated over the last 12 months has been nothing short of staggering.

Today, to me, the word disruptive is a much overused term when describing cloud-related technology trends or, in some cases, new products or services that are probably better defined as innovative rather than truly disruptive. In the case of OpenStack, however, I wonder if we are looking at the potential troublemaker; an unruly Native American upstart with the self-proclaimed ambition of becoming “the Apache of Cloud”. Now that’s fighting talk.

In Clayton Christensen’s much-heralded book The Innovator’s Dilemma, he summarizes the theory, thus:

Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.

Returning back to my presentation at the SIG…the objective of the 15-minute slot was to deliver an explanation of Citrix’ relationship with the OpenStack community, a recap of the previous and ongoing contributions to the effort, and a sneak preview on where this aligns with the portfolio, both today and tomorrow.

Given that someone (presumably from product marketing) had long since decided on the Project Olympus name as the working title for the Citrix/OpenStack effort, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to seize another aviation anorak moment and tossed in a couple of a apparently tenuous linkage slides explaining the history of the design effort around the Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojet aircraft engine and how it came to be selected to power the most beautiful thing to ever take to the clouds – Aerospatiale Concorde.

(Note: in my humble opinion, it’s actually a pretty good analogy, but you would have had to be there or see the slide deck to fully understand it…and for the sake of the illustration, forget the small yet significant fact that one Air France Concorde suffered a catastrophic demise and ultimately the entire fleet was retired on safety grounds…)

The more I thought about aviation analogies (and previous readers of my posts will know that they are unashamedly littered with them) mixed with the concepts of truly disruptive technology and the innovator’s dilemma, I remembered an article by Robert Goyer that I read in this month’s Flying magazine entitled “The Chart Is Dead”….

My guess is that the name Capt. Elrey Jeppesen is not a one that will be familiar to many of you, yet he could quite possibly feature in a list of the Top 10 People Who Made My Life Easier Without Me Actually Stopping To Think About It along with better known folks such as Thomas Edison, Frank Whittle, John Logie-Baird, Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Pasteur and Steve Jobs.

Elrey Jeppesen was a pioneer in every sense of the word. He was a pilot in the 1930s and is widely acclaimed as being the first person to provide the then fledgling airline industry with documented navigational charts – which have formed the basis of safer aviation for the last 80 years – and have provided you, and me, with a relatively simple airplane experience each time we fly. He later went on to establish the Jeppesen Company, and as part of their core business, they mapped, printed and sold literally billions of paper charts to serve the global aviation business.

Here’s the twist. In the 18 months or so since Apple launched the disruptive iPad tablet device, today’s Jeppesen Company have been doing something that is all to rare in the IT industry – they have accepted the disruption, embraced the change and, per Goyer’s quote below, have recognized that cannibalization of their existing business is actually a very sensible strategy.

“Jeppesen, a company that for many decades made its living producing and distributing paper charts is at the forefront to do away with them.”

The smart thing here is that Jeppesen have been quick to realize that it is the data and not the presentation that is at the core of their value. Quite brilliant, actually.

So, could we assume that OpenStack might be viewed as the cloud orchestration equivalent of the iPad? It arrived, with swagger, verve and gusto, challenging the big guns to accept it, or to try and out maneuver it by creating their own equivalent. At what point does the cloud orchestration simply be the equivalent of presentation and the real value generated on top of it become the equivalent of data?

Even at barely a year old, OpenStack is being embraced and extended by an interesting range of early adopters, from Rackspace to Dell and Piston to Nebula – if the promise of truly universal cloud computing requires a common underpinning, in the way that Capt. Jeppesen recognized and created the baseline for navigation, then we may be on the right path with OpenStack – but will there be sufficient acceptance to prevent the swathes of “me-too” products that simply serve to allow the huge, established OEM vendors to survive, not thrive, when the market share attack begins?

Well, If all the pilots of all the airlines in the world used different navigation charts, things that happened above the clouds would be a complete and unadulterated mess…wouldn’t they ? They say history doesn’t repeat, but it certainly rhymes.

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