VMware – Product, Architecture, or Culture?

As the year draws to a close the tendency is to both reflect upon the past and to try to anticipate what the next year is to bring. Thinking about our industry (Virtualization and Cloud Computing) in this way raises some interesting questions that are worth exploring.

Is VMware a Product?

This question more fully stated really means is VMware vSphere really over the long term a product which currently leads a new category of products, or is it destined to become a feature of some broader and more established offering? If we look back over the last few years, it is clear that VMware ESX and now vSphere have established the start of a new product category. Other products in this category include Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix Xen, Red Hat KVM, and if one goes outside of x86 virtualization, IBM Power VM.

Looking forward it is not so clear that everyone in this industry intends to keep and grow virtualization as a standalone product category. Microsoft is certainly leading a charge to relegate virtualization to the status of just another feature of the Windows Server operating system. It is frankly in Red Hat’s best interest for the same to occur with KVM. Both Microsoft and Red Hat (in a classic case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) are therefore aggressively promoting the notion that virtualization is just a feature and backing up that positioning with how they package and price their virtualization offerings.

VMware’s own intentions in this regarding are also not exactly clear. While VMware currently derives the vast majority of its revenue from the sales and maintenance of ESX and vSphere, VMware has already make a version of its virtualization platform (ESXi) free and is focusing a great deal of energy upon building out the layers of the management stack which reside on top of the virtualization platform under the apparent assumption that the hypervisor will get commoditized and what will be left will be a virtualization management software business. So from VMware’s perspective the answer appears to be that VMware is making plans for the hypervisor as a product category to go away, while the stack of management software using to manage virtualization becomes the long term defining product in the category.

Is VMware an Architecture?

Let’s be clear about what is meant by an architecture in this context. An architecture in this context is an overall method or design for the construction of computing systems. Mainframes and mini-computers were products that defined an entire architecture for the construction and operation of computing systems. The x86 computer has spawned a set of architectures, driven by waves of innovation in price performance in CPU, memory and networking, and in broadly adopted communications standards (TCP/IP). One could argue that before VMware arrived, there was a loosely defined “Intel” architecture that was comprised of distributed networks of Intel based servers and desktop computers.

Now for the interesting question. Does VMware (and virtualization in general) change the landscape of computing sufficiently so that it creates an entirely new computing architecture in the process? One way in which this could happen is if VMware becomes the standard virtualization platform for private and public clouds (and you could argue that VMware is well on its way to achieving this level of market penetration) that VMware then becomes the underlying architecture for moving and managing workloads within and between private and public clouds. If this occurs it is likely that virtualization itself will become subsumed by Cloud Computing, and what we will have will then be a Cloud Computing architecture which is enabled by underlying virtualization technology.

Of course, the larger computing industry is not going to stand idly by and let VMware run off and define and own the next generation cloud architecture. Microsoft (Azure), Amazon, Google, and SalesForce.com all have credible entries in this field and are certainly going to give VMware a run for its money in this new market. That said, it appears likely that virtualization is well on its way to becoming a critical enabling technology to a new computing paradigm based upon the cloud (both internal/private) and public clouds.

Is VMware a Culture?

This question first arose in our discussions of how costly it would be for an SMB or SME to adopt VMware ESXi (even if is free from a licensing perspective) under the assumption that the dominant talent set in the SMB or SME is centered around a Microsoft Windows skill set. The question hinges upon whether then acquiring a VMware skill set means bringing people into the company who have an entirely different view of computing than someone who is primarily Windows and Microsoft oriented. There are some interesting facts and correlations to consider here. The first is that VMware is not at its core a “Windows” based technology. Someone with a Unix background will find it much easier to fully embrace the internals and details of VMware than someone who has spent their professional life as a Windows Admin. It is certainly the case that a high percentage of the people in the technical ecosystem that surrounds VMware have Unix systems administration and development backgrounds. There seems to be a strong correlation between technical people who like VMware and an affinity on the part of those same people for laptops and phones from Apple. Evidence of this was the degree to which the ATT network around Moscone center in San Francisco became completely overloaded when the attendees for VMware and their iPhones decended upon the area.

If in fact VMware is a technical culture onto its own, then along with that culture probably comes a certain amount of dislike or distain for Microsoft products. This is what gets us back to the question of adoption costs for SMB and SME’s. If adopting ESXi is the thin edge of a wedge that brings an entirely new set of people with an entirely new (and to a certain extent Microsoft hostile) culture into a company then this will have long term consequences for the agility and decision making processes within IT in this company from that point forward. The question of are we going to do “X” with Microsoft or with VMware will have to get debated whenever there is a new “X” to be considered and this will simply take longer than just doing everything with Microsoft as may have been the case in the SME or SMB beforehand.

In summary, VMware is today a product, the start of an architecture and almost certainly a culture. How this changes as VMware adapts in order to continue to grow and drive its market share will be interesting to watch. A great deal of very technically competent people have become part of the VMware ecosystem because VMware is both difficult to fully master completely and because it drives great benefits to the enterprises that adopt it and the service providers that implement it. For VMware to continue to drive its success, it will have to simplify its technology (the lack of a service console in ESXi – the supposedly long term strategic hypervisor) is a great example of something that VMware must do, but which also may alienate some of the very technical people whose enthusiasm for VMware has put it on the map.

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