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ZeroStack’s full stack from Infrastructure to Application

January 13th, 2016

ZeroStack is a recently out of stealth company providing a cloud managed hyper-converged appliance running OpenStack. It is targeting private cloud customers who are wanting to stand up their own OpenStack instances but don’t want the hassle of getting it all working themselves. What ZeroStack also does which is unique is combine this infrastructure part with application deployment which for me is the exciting bit.

It is early days for the company but it has seasoned financial backers, advisers and founders and after just a year has an impressive amount of functionality in its product.

Private Cloud

imageThe use case is companies wanting to replicate the ease of public cloud but in as a private cloud. Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure make spinning up VMs or even direct application instances easy and allow you to pay per use. It’s all about lowering the admin of deployment and moving to an IT consumption model.

This is all great but companies at the moment need to replicate this functionality in-house and may like to built out a private cloud. They may need data kept on premises due to perceived security concerns or even legally requiring data to be held in a particular location. There may be more practical concerns like the amount of data to be stored/analysed that makes it impractical to move externally. The issue of cost may be an issue with scare stories of AWS bills racking up quickly although I do find companies are very poor at working out their own internal data center costs so comparisons are not necessarily accurate.

The point where deployment happens is also shifting away from infrastructure support teams to application support teams and further along to applications themselves managing their own infrastructure resources via API calls to a cloud to spin up new VMs with automated deployment and scaling of applications.

Suffice to say companies are wanting to replicate public cloud functionality internally to give applications the resources they require. Current software options are generally VMware which is feature rich with excellent infrastructure resiliency with a cost model to match the functionality or OpenStack which is open source, not as feature rich with deliberately less infrastructure resiliency but doesn’t have license costs due to a vendor.

ZeroStack uses the tagline “Public Cloud Experience, Private Cloud Control” and as I see it is attempting to give its customers four key things:

1. Hardware: Hyper-Converged Appliance


ZeroStack is selling its customers a hardware turn-key solution with a hyper-converged appliance starting at 4 nodes in 2U. The hyper-converged market is certainly getting more crowded, it’s a great use case for simplicity particularly for ZeroStack’s target, developers, who need to stand up infrastructure and either don’t have the knowledge or don’t want the complexity of having to manage external storage.

ZeroStack has very simple storage and that’s by design. A software SAN is created using local drives pooled together across all the nodes. By default VM storage isn’t replicated even within the cluster, a scary thought for any infrastructure person. Remember though, ZeroStack, being on OpenStack is being targeted at very cloud native applications where the resiliency is part of the application. If a VM or node fails your stateless application will self heal by automatically deploying new instances on available nodes. You don’t actually need highly resilient storage. If you do have a requirement for persistent storage for a database for example you can choose to replicate individual VMs which will make another storage copy within the local cluster. Remote replication to another ZeroStack cluster for DR is on the roadmap. People continue to demand highly resilient storage but with newer cloud native applications that can self heal, this may no longer always be necessary.

As for networking, again it is simple for now so if you are wanting to securely segregate your web front-end from your database with multiple nics or separate zones, ZeroStack isn’t for you yet. Some of the network limitations are due to OpenStack rather than ZeroStack itself so as OpenStack matures so will ZeroStack. If you do need advanced secure networking in production, you could still use something like ZeroStack as your dev environment so you have something internally for developers to code against which is ultimately pushed somewhere else for production.

2. Software: OpenStack

imageI’ve mentioned the choice of OpenStack as the cloud orchestration engine behind ZeroStack. OpenStack is targeted at cloud native applications with developer centric APIs to allow apps to deploy their own infrastructure. Unfortunately OpenStack is hellishly difficult to get running so part of the ZeroStack value proposition is to do it all for you. As ZeroStack provides the hardware via the hyper-converged appliance it can curate the drivers, firmware and installation to provide a very simple and completely packaged install, no messing around with OpenStack fighting your own hardware to get it up and running. ZeroStack can be set up in 30 minutes. They even have a slogan for this: “Rack, Stack, Cloud”!

There are many companies who’s reason for existence is simply making OpenStack easier which is a laudable goal but not a long term proposition. OpenStack will mature, get easier to install, get easier to operate, that’s the progress of IT. I’m heartened that the easier OpenStack is just one of the things ZeroStack does and not its primary focus as this isn’t viable long term.

3. Management Cloud Managed

The third part of ZeroStack is that the whole solution is managed by ZeroStack from the cloud. This is what allows the simple installation and management, ZeroStack basically does it for you. When the hardware hyper-converged appliance first boots. it calls home to ZeroStack and downloads the configs and setup and off you go, nothing for you to install yourself! I can attest to this, we watched a demo during a recent Virtualisation Field Day presentation and the whole installation was done while we watched. Ongoing, ZeroStack will handle the patching and configuration of OpenStack, this is the how of making OpenStack simpler, not just doing the pre-configured packaging and installation of OpenStack but ongoing management from the cloud.


Of course companies are going to have security concerns doing this but this is a model they are going to have to work through as it is going to be the best way to do private cloud if you need it. Hardware and data on-site but management done remotely by a company which rents its private cloud management as a service. Companies will be slow to catch on but think about how much time is spent managing on-premises infrastructure software and hardware including firmware, drivers, upgrades, patching, security, certificates etc. May as well get someone else to do it as it isn’t differentiating. Vendors and investors like this model too as you can sell hardware as well as subscriptions. Trust needs to be built to make this a reality and I hope ZeroStack helps to create this.

One of the interesting decisions ZeroStack has made is to host its cloud management internally, so not in AWS or another public cloud provider. Apparently the reason for this is as they are selling the benefits of a private cloud solution and not a public cloud one, they think customers would be expecting ZeroStack to be running a private cloud themselves with no public cloud in sight. I must admit I find this strange and possibly shortsighted. You don’t need to prove to customers that you are running your own private cloud to manage their private clouds. This decision should actually concern customers as it will create scale, availability and security issues. ZeroStack may not be able to take on more customers if it needs to build up its own hosting capacity. Why should OpenStack spend time looking after racks and cabling when it doesn’t need to, this should just be hosted on AWS or some public cloud. I don’t see any conflict in providing a private cloud managed service but running from a public cloud, it should be transparent to the customer anyway.

4. Applications: Cloud Deployment

This is the part where I believe ZeroStack’s idea shines and is actually their best go to market feature. There are a number of other converged or hyper-converged infrastructure stacks such as Vblocks, FlexPods, Nutanix, SimpliVity, HP Converged Systems etc. They are all simplifying the hardware and sometimes OpenStack software provisioning but despite all the talk about these systems existing to support applications, the actual management and deployment of applications is never part of the solution.

ZeroStack has thought ahead and offers what developers actually need which is to get the applications onto the stack they are writing code for. As ZeroStack is cloud managed, developers can initiate an API call or it can be done manually from the console and the ZeroStack OpenStack appliance will call home to ZeroStack and download the software plus config from an existing template for for Jenkins, Hadoop, etc. There are also pre-installed images for various other applications which you can then customise yourself.

image       image

This is very powerful and ties the infrastructure to the application closer than anything else I can think of. If the reason for all this hardware+OpenStack is ultimately to run applications, why should the infrastructure not be able to install the application dependencies itself. In the future I can see this expanding to be able to deploy platforms like Cloud Foundry although that somewhat negates some of the the benefits of OpenStack but that’s another discussion.

ZeroStack is also planning to be able to run containers natively on its solution so this ties even better together as ZeroStack can pull down containers from Docker Hub or another repository and very quickly build up applications. I wonder however whether developers will need to hook their APIs into ZeroStack or OpenStack itself or native Docker to manage this or is this yet another branch into which OpenStack will develop, not just managing VMs but containers as well. Another roadmap item is further integration with public clouds such as AWS, Azure and GCP. From ZeroStack’s cloud portal you will be able to choose which clouds (multiple public or ZeroStack private) on which to deploy your workloads via VMs or containers. This must mean ZeroStack sees the future in a multi-cloud world and the current hyper-converged+OpenStack offering is just one way to get to part of it.


For an early stage company, ZeroStack seems to be doing a lot, hyper-converged + OpenStack + Cloud Management + Application Deployment. This is an impressive amount of work in a short time. I’ve long complained that private cloud management software (VMware or OpenStack) is very difficult to set up so I’ll be keeping a keen eye on what ZeroStack does.

You can see all the videos from Virtualisation Field Day 6 including the ones covering ZeroStack at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLinuRwpnsHaduFAs6XRyaQ2sSiAxSaM3V

Gestalt IT payed for travel, accommodation and things to eat while attending Virtualisation Field Day but haven’t payed a penny for my time or to write anything good or bad about anyone or anything.

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