PayPal dodges VMware question -- again -- but sheds light on OpenStack implementation

Dodge Credit: Source: How I See Life, via Flickr

PayPal dodged a question during the OpenStack Summit about whether it planned to ditch VMware, following recent reports that it would, but it did share details about how the company has used OpenStack to build a private cloud that dramatically reduced the work required by developers to start and deploy new projects.

The spotlight was on PayPal after a recent Business Insider story reported that the company planned to yank VMware software from 80,000 servers. A vaguely worded statement from PayPal followed, included as part of a VMware blog post, saying that VMware is a valued PayPal partner and that the company plans to “continue leveraging their core strengths.”

Unclear exactly what that meant, one attendee of a presentation from Saran Mandair, senior director of platform engineering and operations for PayPal, asked him to clarify exactly what was going on with PayPal and VMware.

His response, which sounded carefully worded, didn’t clarify much. “We are trying to make our data center operating system agnostic of compute, storage, network and hypervisor,” Mandair said. Reading between the lines, his statement could mean that while PayPal will keep some VMware products, it’s also opening the door to using others.

The ability to choose multiple vendors is one of what Mandair called “guiding principles” that the company set when deciding to revamp its data center. Those principles included adopting open source wherever possible and avoiding vendor lock in. That meant the company would build an abstraction layer supported by industry that would allow it to choose from multiple vendors.

The company also wanted to reduce internal complexity involved with spinning up new services, enable fulfillment quickly and easily, and use a single operating system that would span the entire infrastructure.

Reducing complexity was key. Mandair found that even to deploy a small service, a developer might open more than 100 tickets with IT, create a dozen design documents and suffer through “countless hours” of meetings.

One reason the process was so cumbersome was because PayPal’s test and production environments were very different, he said. They had different configurations, firewalls and network topologies, he said. Allowing all stages of development to run on a single infrastructure would dramatically reduce complexity for the company.

When PayPal chose OpenStack, it didn’t know if the project would gain momentum, and it didn’t really care, he said. “That was secondary. Primary was that it worked for us. It met the principles we came up with that were unique to our business challenges,” he said.

After settling on OpenStack, the company went from “idea to reality in six weeks,” he said. With two engineers, it had a production ready OpenStack cloud. The company initially picked two isolated apps to run in the environment to validate it.

“We had a pretty aggressive schedule. We wanted to make sure we could do it and if we failed, we wanted to fail fast,” he said.

The implementation of OpenStack was smooth, he said. “We did run into issues but we were fairly impressed that we didn’t run into as many as expected,” he said.

He was also impressed by the level of community support. One of his engineers ran into a problem related to a change that had to be made in a 45 minute time frame. “He put it on the [OpenStack] chat board and got seven or eight answers in ten minutes,” he said.

“That proved something to us. There are smarter people outside our company and they have a passion for making this open source software work. And we were able to use that for our business benefit,” he said.

PayPal now has a plan for expanding the OpenStack cloud to development, quality assurance and other parts of the business.

So far, PayPal figures that the OpenStack cloud has reduced its cost of compute -- presumably in terms of comparing the apps running on OpenStack to the previous model -- by almost three times.

Other hot topics at the OpenStack Summit have been worries that a lack of maturity of the technology is slowing down enterprise adoption, more talk of businesses leaving Amazon Web Services, tales of spies using OpenStack clouds, and word that physicists around the globe are linking their clouds as a way to share resources.

Read more of Nancy Gohring's "To the Cloud" blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @ngohring. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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