As the world’s largest retailer and fourth-largest e-commerce shop, Walmart confronts some of the biggest logistical and analytics problems on the planet. In grappling with them, the company leans heavily on the open source community. Walmart Technology is one of the largest enterprise users of OpenStack, running more than 170,000 cores on the cloud platform. OpenStack helped inaugurate a new era of agility at Walmart that’s only been bolstered by internal open source projects such as OneOps, as well as a strong DevOps culture.
Walmart’s move to OpenStack was rooted in a number of factors. For one, the company wanted to foster a work environment where developers could innovate with the latest and greatest technology at enterprise scale. The adoption of OpenStack was a key selling point for Sean Roberts, who joined @WalmartLabs earlier this year as director of technical management and has been a leading OpenStack contributor since 2011.
“Walmart has made a commitment to being a technology leader, and the use of open source software is a big part of that future,” Roberts said.
But the adoption of OpenStack was also a response to an immediate technological problem — that of scaling. Walmart’s e-commerce operation had simply gone as far as it could on commercial software alone. As Roberts explained, vendors design most enterprise cloud solutions with the SME market in mind since that’s where most of the customers are. Consequently, most commercial platforms max out at VM clusters of 200 or 300 machines. Because the platforms are proprietary, it’s very difficult for users to make any customizations.
“We actually built out some really huge implementations of commercial platforms, really trying to scale beyond what they’re capable of doing. A lot of internet companies have done the same thing — scaled things beyond what they were originally intended to do because they needed to do something,” Roberts said. “Because of that, we invariably kept going back to wanting to build something that was built to scale from the get-go, not trying to force it to scale.”
OpenStack enables Walmart to scale various applications running in its private cloud up and down to meet the demands of multiple businesses sharing the same infrastructure. And due to its feature-rich and API-driven model, Walmart is able to use OpenStack in conjunction with other public providers.
“We’re able to scale almost in real time with demand, which is a huge benefit for our applications. It can prioritize and scale workloads because of the API-driven infrastructure,” said Andrew Mitry, Walmart’s OpenStack and public cloud lead. “For example, when we announced Shipping Pass, we had a lot of load on certain parts of our applications, and we were able to scale those up and then scale them back down. We have a lot of flexibility. Before, everything used to be manually allocated.”
As much as OpenStack has redefined Walmart’s model for cloud infrastructure, the company has also given back to the open source project. With well over 200 commits to more than 70 modules, Walmart frequently ranks among the top 30 OpenStack contributors. In fact, what Roberts is most excited about going forward is the evolution of what he calls “internal open source” within Walmart.
“It’s being able to implement open source development behavior within the company — the ability to have a very open and public meeting with teams developing software out in the open,” he said. “That kind of behavior is what makes organizations like OpenStack so successful. Development is very organic and moves very quickly. We’re very excited about where it’s going to lead us in the next couple of years.”
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