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There’s still not much clarity when it comes to all things cloud these days, and the confusion surrounding the emergence of so-called cloud operating systems is not helping matters.

Much of the debate about cloud computing will be managed can be traced back to emergence of OpenStack, an effort led by Rackspace and NASA to create an open source layer of software for managing heterogeneous cloud computing environments. Essentially, OpenStack was created to prevent customers from getting locked into proprietary cloud computing platforms.

Of course, that didn’t stop anybody from creating proprietary cloud computing management platforms, which include vCloud Director from VMware, Eucalyptus Cloud from Eucalyptus Systems, the OpenNebula open source project, Microsoft’s plans for Azure and most recently, CloudStack courtesy of Citrix Systems and the Apache Foundation.

CloudStack, launched earlier this week, is an attempt by Citrix to create a cloud operating environment that is primarily optimized for cloud environment based on the Xen open source virtual machine. While not widely used inside the enterprise, Xen has a major following in the channel where cloud service providers rely on it as a way to avoid having to pay exorbitant fees for licensing huge number of virtual machines.

Feature sets across these different cloud operating system environments differ markedly. There is a significant amount of overlap between them in terms of functionality, but many of them have specific features that are optimized for particular types of cloud computing environments. The degree to which solutions providers will need to master each of these management platforms will be largely dictated to how closely aligned they are with any given vendor.

But just to make matters more interesting, the folks that run OpenStack today rolled out a much-anticipated Essex version of the platform that adds a raft of enterprise-class features. According to Jonathan Bryce, co-founder of Rackspace Cloud and chairman of the OpenStack Project Policy Board, this latest release shows that OpenStack is more than ready to be deployed in production environments, which has been one of the criticisms of the open source project up until at least now.

While fragmentation of the cloud may not be an ideal situation, the really good news about all these cloud operating systems is the level of sophisticated management functions they bring to IT. One of the major issues with cloud computing is that it can’t really scale unless more of the manual processes that characterize traditional IT become automated. As a class of management tools, cloud operating systems are delivering new management frameworks that will make it a whole lot easier for IT administrators to manage IT environments that will consist of thousands of virtual and physical servers. That’s critical because the single most expensive element of IT remains the cost of labor.

The best advice for the channel, however, may come from ActiveState CEO Bart Copeland. As a provider of a Stackato platform-as-a-service (PaaS) platform, Copeland says ActiveState is going to have to support all these cloud operating environments. But he says solution providers and their customers should figure out which one most closely aligns with their overall IT strategy and then lean hard on it.

That doesn’t mean ignoring all the rest. Copeland says he is pretty convinced that these cloud operating systems are just extensions of the operating system wars that have plagued IT for years. Eventually, customer will have flavors of each of them running in their IT environment; it’s just that one of them will wind up being a little more dominant than all the others.