John Burnam

Three years ago, Rackspace Hosting and NASA decided to team up to tackle a problem they had come to realize they were both trying to individually solve: free-to-use code to help create scalable virtual clouds for companies of every shape and size.

Like long lost twins finishing each other’s sentences, in just four months this private and public duo rolled out the first version of what is now known as OpenStack.

Although this revolutionary three-year-old system is the toast of the town when it comes to techies and web junkies everywhere, its importance often falls on deaf ears when it comes to us laypeoples who lack a strong basic understanding of what the heck cloud computing even means.

Courtesy of Rackspace.
OpenStack software diagram. Courtesy of Rackspace.

According to the OpenStack website: “OpenStack is a collaborative software project designed to create freely available code, badly needed standards, and common ground for the benefit of both cloud providers and cloud customers.”

While that still might not make any sense, what is obvious is that when two organizations with the reputation of building rockets, revolutionizing virtual storage, and designing office slides get together (see bottom photo), you know the end result is probably going to be a pretty big deal.

While the “what is it” part of the OpenStack story is often told, the “how it formed ” is just as interesting and even more improbable.

In the summer of 2010, NASA and Rackspace were each designing their own open-sourced code to provide companies with a free alternative to Amazon’s elastic cloud storage system when they learned of each other’s operations and decided to sit down and talk.

As soon as they met, the two companies realized that they were writing the same code the other was working on but from a different angle. NASA was working on network components and Rackspace was designing storage. Three weeks later, they jointly launched a new open-source cloud initiative known as OpenStack.

Rackspace servers. Courtesy photo.
Rackspace servers. Courtesy photo.

According to Jim Curry, senior vice president and general manager for Rackspace’s Private Cloud, the two groups were on to something and knew that they had to team up.

While teaming up seemed inevitable, they were quickly reminded of the potential problems when it came time to pay for lunch.

The Nebula cloud computing container located at NASA Ames Research Center. Courtesy of NASA.
The Nebula cloud computing container located at NASA Ames Research Center. Courtesy of NASA.

“We offered to pay, but the folks at NASA said that it was against the rules to receive payment for anything so instead we each had to put in exact change for lunch,” Curry said. “At that point we paused and wondered what we got ourselves into and how was something like this going to work out with such a different culture.”

However, work out it did and thanks to the partnership, Openstack is revolutionizing the way companies approach computing.

Often compared to Linux, the OpenStack project is seeking to standardize the way virtual elastic clouds run. In the three years since its birth, the code has become the fastest growing open-sourced project in history, spun off a non-profit foundation, and has come to include 180 companies, including industry giants AMD, Intel, Red Hat, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, and Yahoo!

The goal of OpenStack is to democratize the cloud storage process and it is working because everyone is equally invested. Code is being shared from 85 different countries and companies from NASA to IBM and everything in between.

This process of democratization is the attempts of other companies to create something that is capable of competing with Amazon’s elastic cloud (currently the largest elastic cloud  platform on the market) which requires companies to sign off on storing and running everything on Amazon systems.

The showdown between Amazon and  OpenStack is incredibly similar to what we saw with Apple IOS and its open-sourced counterpart- Android. In 2009, Android carried 2.8% of the mobile device operating system market share but thanks to its free system, it climbed all the way to 33% of the market in 2010 and as of July of last year, owned 75% of the market with 1.5 million new users joining each day.

While tech groups all over the world are fawning over what OpenStack means for the future of buisness, what is often lost in this global undertaking is what it means for our city.

Jim Curry, senior vice president and general manager of Rackspace’s Private Cloud business.
Jim Curry, senior vice president and general manager of Rackspace’s Private Cloud business.

According to Curry, “the development of OpenStack by a company dedicated to San Antonio means that our city now has its hands in the fastest growing open source platform in the history of the world.”

This is big news for a city that’s hoping to head the next tech boom. Right now when people think tech, they think of Silicon Valley but as OpenStack expands, some of the best and brightest from all over the world are flying to the Alamo city just to get in on the action. Hence, Silicon Hills.

The ramifications of these moves are huge for a city that has been historically perceived as undereducated and the “biggest little town in America.” Not only is Rackspace’s cool factor multiplied by about 10 thanks to their partnership with every boy’s dream company, NASA, but the infusion of new energy and ideas into the city is also helping brain gain by attracting new tech employees and their families.

Inevitably, as tech gurus get together, it doesn’t take long for ideas to coalesce and the spin-out effect to take over as these individual parlay their talent and training into new ideas and companies.

Even though Rackspace and OpenStack are still relatively young, spinoff is already in full force as previous employees have gone on to develop other impressive startups like TrueAbility and Dataset or infuse high-tech culture into companies like Xenex Disinfection Services.

Companies like Rackspace are beneficial to cities like ours and while they have been changing the culture of San Antonio for almost 15 years, their latest partnership with NASA is just the most recent iteration of this progress. OpenStack also represents the kind of  future that is going to put this city on the map and even minus the rockets and mars rovers, that sounds like a pretty cool future to me.

Oh, and just in case you weren’t paying attention: Rackspace has slides.

The famous Rackspace slide at the "Castle" headquarters. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The famous Rackspace slide at the “Castle” headquarters. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

John Burnam is an independent consultant currently working with San Antonio Christian Dental Clinic, The Louise Batz Foundation for Bedside Advocacy, I Care San Antonio, and Xenex Disinfection Services. He works in patient safety, community health and well-being,  nonprofit development, copywriting and strategic planning. He graduated from Trinity University with a Bachelors in Art History and Classics and from Vanderbilt University with a Master’s degree in Theological Studies. Interested parties can check him out at

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John Burnam is the co-founder and principal of Burnam | Gray, a nonprofit consulting firm that seeks to help agencies ignite and scale best practices.