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Explaining OpenStack With Wacky Analogies

The right analogy can explain the complexity of OpenStack to folks who are unfamiliar with it. Or it can confuse them even more.

Mitch Wagner

October 27, 2016

9 Min Read
Explaining OpenStack With Wacky Analogies

BARCELONA -- OpenStack Summit -- Explaining OpenStack is like explaining an elephant to someone who's never seen one. The right analogy can help shed light on a confusing and unfamiliar topic.

And OpenStack needs to be explained. It's still new -- just six years old. Many people haven't heard of it and many who have heard of it have only a vague idea what it is. The right analogy can cut through the confusion when dealing with the CFO, colleagues, interns and friends and family.

Sadly, the wrong analogy just compounds problems.

At a panel titled "From Venti Lattes to Valet Parking: Wacky Analogies to Explain OpenStack," participants shared their wackiest OpenStack analogies. Some highlights and flops:

OpenStack is like GrubHub
Discussion started by comparing OpenStack to GrubHub. "OpenStack is the GrubHub of technology," said Tyler Britten, a technical advocate at the Office of the CTO at IBM Blue Box. With GrubHub, you can order food from a number of restaurants, and GrubHub deals with the individual restaurants to get your food to you.

Figure 1: Your application portability is here. Your application portability is here.

Likewise, with OpenStack, you can deal with a number of different hypervisors -- KVM, VMware, Xen, HyperV, and so on. An application connects to OpenStack using APIs, and OpenStack connects to the cloud platform. "Same way that if I use GrubHub to order ribs, I don't have to call the restaurant," Britten says.

With GrubHub, consumers get a greater variety of foods as more restaurants come online, noted Shamail Tahir, offering manager for OpenStack Initiatives at IBM. Similarly, new services become available to OpenStack users as they come online with OpenStack.

Great analogy.

OpenStack is like coffee
The different ways of consuming OpenStack are like the different ways to consume coffee, Heidi Joy Tretheway, senior marketing manager for the OpenStack Foundation, said.


A managed cloud is like Starbucks. At Starbucks you can make a hairy complicated order -- triple venti half sweet non-fat caramel macchiato -- and get exactly what you want, Tretheway said.

A commercial distro, like Red Hat, Mirantis, or Canonical, is like using a Keurig coffee maker. You have a limited set of choices, but they're nicely packaged for you, Tretheway said.

Or you can download the source directly from the OpenStack Foundation, which is like becoming a coffee gourmet who roasts and grinds their own beans. It's a lot more work, but you get it just the way you like it.

This started out as a good analogy, but it fell down at the end. It fails to explain why everybody doesn't just go to Starbucks all the time. Starbucks sounds perfect, based on Tretheway's description.

If you're an open source advocate or a coffee snob you're really angry at me now. Leave a comment below to vent.

The 'Big Tent' is like a farmers' market
Not a great metaphor. I didn't know what the Big Tent was going in, I still don't. I need to look into that. The farmers' market analogy didn't help.

Next page: Office space

Virtual machines, containers, and bare metal are like different kinds of offices
Using a bare metal server is like leasing a whole office building for your company, or having one constructed, Britten said. You get to control every detail, such as how many bathrooms and break rooms are on every floor and where they're located.

A virtual machine is like an office suite. You share common facilities in the building with other companies. You have your own bathrooms and breakrooms, and control space, but it's still within the confines of the building.

And a container is like renting a single office. You can get it for as short as a day or a few hours. Core services are pre-built. You don't get a lot of control but you do get a lot of flexibility on how long the lease runs.

Figure 2: Containers share computing resources, but they get their own stapler. Containers share computing resources, but they get their own stapler.

Interoperability is like power outlets
The OpenStack API is like a plug that goes into a power outlet, said Tahir. You can plug in a toaster, or a laptop, or whatever device you want. You can connect a device in your office, home, a hotel, or wherever you want to go. "You can get a power adapter in the car and plug in your blender for margaritas," Tyler said.

In OpenStack, the cloud-native application relying on the OpenStack API is like the toaster relying on the socket to draw power.

Pretty good analogy.

Other analogies:

Block storage vs. object storage is like parking your Porsche
You can rent a storage unit for your Porsche, which is like block storage. Or you can just hand the keys to a valet, which is like object storage.

This is a good example of where metaphors break down, which is when the listener starts thinking about the metaphor rather than the thing that's being explained. Rather than thinking about OpenStack, I started wondering why a person would want to put their car in a storage unit rather than a parking garage. Then I started thinking about Silence of the Lambs. Wasn't there a serial killer in that movie who put a vintage car in a storage unit and then it turned out there was a severed head in the car? Are severed heads somehow a part of OpenStack?

I did not like that metaphor.

Figure 3: Ate the cloud storage capacity with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Ate the cloud storage capacity with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Networking and SDN are like mail delivery
"Mail is a very classic networking analogy," Britten noted. Technologists use mail quite a bit to explain networking. And mail can be used to explain the difference between physical networking and SDN.

With physical networking, you write a letter, put it in an envelope, and hand it to the mailman -- the closest router, Britten said.

SDN is like inter-office mail, where you just have to put the recipient's name on the outside of the envelope, and you hand it to your internal mail delivery person. Sometimes, the letter goes to a co-worker who works far away, in which case the mail workers stuff your envelope into a big envelope that goes to that other office, and that big envelope needs an address. But that part of the process is hidden from you.

Next page: Mailing it in

I'm not sure about that metaphor. On the one hand, it's clear and direct -- to me. I'm old enough to remember inter-office mail. But does that mean anything to people who've been in the office workplace less than 20 years?

Also, the metaphor doesn't touch on the main benefits of SDN -- flexibility, reduced operations, and cost savings.

And then I started thinking about the TV show Angel, which ran 1999-2004, about a vampire with a soul who fights evil, and which had a storyline featuring an inter-office mail delivery person who wore a luchador mask.

And now the analogy is completely broken. I'm thinking more about the analogy (inter-office mail) than I am about the thing I'm supposed to be thinking about (networking).

Why do for-profit companies support OpenStack?
When the Australians started building railroads 150 years ago, they initially only had to build from the interior of the continent to the ocean, Tretheway said. They used different sizes of rail lines -- wide, regular, and narrow gauge. That became a huge problem when Australians wanted to link together different points on the continent.

At one point, there were 13 different breaks between rail networks, with 1,600 people moving 1.8 million tons of freight off of cars compatible with one rail line and onto cars compatible with others.

It became to every rail company's advantage to standardize on rail line gauges, Tretheway said,

"OpenStack is a lot like making a rail network system," Tretheway said. The underlying standardized infrastructure benefits all the companies involved.

This is a great analogy. As technologies mature over centuries -- literally centuries -- you start seeing the same issues cropping up over and over.

Public, private, and community clouds are like bars
The public cloud is like a public bar. It's great if you want one drink, Tahir said.

The private cloud is like having a bar in your home. It's a greater investment, but you have control over what's served.

A community cloud is like a private social club with a bar. These private organizations usually are formed by people with something in common -- for example, all the members might be military veterans. Similarly, in a community cloud, you get research institutions or educational institutions getting together to form a cloud.

One audience member asked what kind of bar compares with a hybrid cloud? Panelists seemed to struggle with that one. Tahir said a hybrid cloud is like going to the Las Vegas strip, buying a bottle, and taking it to your private room to hang out with friends.

Britten said he has a neighbor with a basement bar who goes to a public bar pretty regularly anyway.

I came up with the idea that a hybrid cloud is like when you have a bar at your house, and you throw a party, and your friends bring their friends and it gets too big and out of hand so you go to a public bar. That's like bursting to the cloud. And then maybe some bad people crash the party; they're going to write on the walls and break up the furniture. That's like a denial-of-service attack, and a public bar (or cloud) is better able to deal with that kind of thing than a private home.

Great analogy. And now I think I'll have a drink.

Figure 4: Just hope Bart doesn't call. Just hope Bart doesn't call.

Related posts:

— Mitch Wagner, Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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