VMware vCloud Hybrid Service

On Tuesday VMware announced their answer to the public cloud: the vCloud Hybrid Service (vCHS). One of the biggest hurdles for the roughly 500,000 VMware customers has been that their on-premise, private infrastructure isn’t directly interoperable with any sizable public clouds, like Amazon AWS or RackSpace. If you want to move towards a public or hybrid cloud model you need to add additional software, like Enstratius’ offerings or VMware’s own vCloud Automation Center. You could also use the vCloud Connector, but that relies on having another vCloud available. One of VMware’s frustrations has been the adoption rate of partners, most refusing to build full vCloud implementations, effectively trapping VMware customers inside their own data centers.

Enter VMware’s vCloud Hybrid Service. vCHS has two models: one where you rent certain amounts of dedicated physical hardware, and the other where you rent capacity in a multi-tenant virtual cloud. This capacity is found in data centers in the United States: Santa Clara, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Sterling, VA, all run by third-party data center operators. Asian and European options will follow later. Using third-party data centers enabled VMware to move more quickly to build this service, and gives them flexibility in how they operate it into the future. Given previous announcements about VMware ESXi on Open Compute Project hardware it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine those types of servers in use, or the option to build with them in the future if VMware decides to build their own data centers.

The main tenet of vCHS, and what sets it apart from all other public clouds, is that it’s designed to interoperate seamlessly with your existing software, VMware or otherwise. It links to your infrastructure via their new “Hybrid Cloud Connector,” undoubtably a variant of their older vCloud Connector software. You may use the vCHS solely through an independent web interface, but that isn’t what it’s built for, and you’ll likely find it wanting in comparison to AWS or vCloud. The vCHS is built to be used as an extension of VMware vSphere & vCloud. vFabric, too – the vCHS doesn’t currently offer AWS-style features like databases, for example, so it relies on total compatibility with pre-existing VMware products. The goal of vCHS is really to extend your VMware-powered enterprise offsite, and use all your normal tools, all your already-written procedures, to do so. Business as usual, except that business might not be physically onsite anymore (not that you’d be able to tell).

One interesting point is that none of the vCHS relies on the Nicira acquisition, now being called VMware NSX. Instead, vCHS is built on the same technologies that shipped with vCloud 5.1, specifically the vCloud Networking and Security (vCNS) components. This allows it to use VXLAN to extend your internal networks up into the cloud providers, allowing VMs to be deployed without needing to change their addresses. It also allows them to continue participating seamlessly in other vCNS features, like load balancing, firewall, NAT, VPN, and routing, as if they were still in your own datacenter. Of course, “seamlessly” always has asterisks next to it when it comes to network traffic, especially for services that aren’t completely internal, but it’s a great start.

“Seamless” also has caveats in other ways, as you’d expect from any 1.0 service. Like all other public clouds you cannot just vMotion workloads into the vCHS. Instead you must shut them down and do a “stretched deploy,” the length of which varies on your own bandwidth and the size of the virtual machines you’re redeploying. There are also other gotchas at the moment, like the ability for tools like vCenter Operations Manager, Chargeback Manager, etc. to see into the vCHS. That’s understandable, since an operation like stretched deploy changes basic information about the VM, like the UUID, which for tools like vCenter Operations Manager means it looks like a whole new VM. Though VMware has been mum on what we might expect for announcements this year at VMworld it’s a reasonable guess that there will be at least incremental product updates to gain all the seamlessness they continue to emphasize. In fact, adding access for tools like vCenter Operations Manager would give VMware a serious advantage over most other public clouds, where customer-accessible performance data is seriously limited, usually to just the bogus stats you can see inside a virtual machine itself. That, coupled with the common support for vCHS and other VMware products (one phone number to call, one support matrix, total compatibility with vSphere) may completely justify the costs of this service for many enterprises.

VMware is showing sensitivity to pricing and licensing topics, as well as to their partners by enabling them to quote and sell these services directly. VMware has published their initial pricing, with virtual private cloud hosting at $0.04 per hour per fractional vCPU & 1 GB of RAM (CPU and RAM scales together in this pricing model to keep things simple). That is in the ballpark of the other public cloud providers, with the exception that the rates are either 3 or 12 month contracts. Annual contracts are a big departure from the utility computing model, where VMs can be decommissioned to save money when workload goes down. Remember, though, that VMware’s goal isn’t utility computing, it’s offsite enterprise computing. Traditional enterprise customers may actually enjoy the more predictable cost model associated with the vCHS. Licensing is a bit of a mess, too. Many customers using vCenter Operations Manager, Hyperic, vFabric, etc. do so as part of a vCloud Suite, which has a per-socket licensing model. Would those customers be licensed to monitor & deploy into the vCHS? Time will tell, but without a return to per-VM licensing (bad), or ridiculous ideas like the vRAM tax (worse), there’s really only one right answer here: they will have to be.

Overall, I think VMware is on to something. Certainly some industry pundits will decry this as VMware doing the public cloud backwards, but that is exactly VMware’s design goal. This isn’t Amazon AWS, and it isn’t trying to be. There’s a very long tail when it comes to enterprise IT, and despite some folks constantly declaring the data center to be dead many organizations won’t or can’t move completely to the public cloud. This first move with vCHS lets enterprises get their feet wet very safely, building directly on all the infrastructure, policy, security, and process they already have. More importantly, though, it also lets VMware figure out their next steps, to compete based on what enterprises actually want, and not just what AWS already has.

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