How OpenStack is Giving DreamHost a Competitive Edge

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Founded in 1996, DreamHost is one of the longest-running web hosts. As such, it has needed to constantly reinvent itself, and its latest efforts to stay current revolve around using OpenStack to provide a solid foundation for its hosted services.

In an interview with the WHIR, Jonathan LaCour, VP of Cloud at DreamHost, says that the combined effort of OpenStack’s thousands of contributors helps provide software that no company could create itself. “For us, the big benefit of OpenStack was being part of a large community.”

He says that OpenStack makes it possible to automate a much broader set of things that would otherwise require individual attention, and to virtualize compute, network and storage. Once implemented, a service provider can manage infrastructure efficiently across an entire data center and across multiple data centers.

DreamHost’s transition to OpenStack has come in stages, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been a very difficult transition for sure,” LaCour says. “In many ways, our hosting infrastructure is similar to the way it was 5 or 6 years ago, and that’s going to continue to be the case as we move forward, but we’re slowly going to start bringing these things in.

“The model we chose to do is that instead of trying to shoe-horn our hosting infrastructure into OpenStack, what we chose to do is build an OpenStack cluster, and build on that experience, and start transitioning things in as we need to. And that’s proven to be a very difficult path to go down because you’re building solutions for solutions for customers that aren’t yourself – which is hard…In retrospect, that’s been a big challenge for us, but we’ve learned a lot.”

After virtualizing compute, DreamHost went about virtualiation of storage using Ceph, an open source file system designed to manage exabytes of data across thousands of servers. (Ceph itself was actually started by DreamHost co-founder Sage Weil, and DreamHost launched Inktank in 2012 as a spinoff company that provides services around Ceph.)

LaCour says storage virtualization has been revolutionary for DreamHost. It has allowed DreamHost’s cloud storage clusters – one object storage and one block storage – to serve completely separate purposes, yet use the same software, and operate identically, so that DreamHost can eventually merge the operations teams.

“On the cloud side of our business, we have essentially two storage clusters for completely different purposes: One is object storage using an [Amazon] S3-compatible API and OpenStack-compatible APIs – so that’s built on Ceph. And then we have a block-storage model which is using our DreamCompute product – our public cloud infrastructure cloud and it is also Ceph powered,” he said.

After months in free beta and with thousands of testers, its virtual server product DreamCompute, which includes compute and storage virtualization, came out of beta period on October 1.

DreamHost currently has two new hosting products in development that are built on top of its OpenStack cloud infrastructure. One of these products will be available by the end of the year. “That’s where we’ll see the wins that we’ve worked so hard to gain. That’s going to be exciting.”

The company has been doing a lot of work to incorporate OpenStack into its core business, but it’s an investment that isn’t immediately obvious to customers, but DreamHost is honing in on its goal of making it easier and cheaper to operate their data centers – eventually.

“We’re starting to see some early returns. These shifts aren’t measured in a year, they’re measured in a decade,” LaCour says. “So, we’re still early in that cycle – we’re three years in – but we’re starting to see some things.”

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