Will VMware Use Docker to Kill Enterprise Linux?

Every once in a while, a truly disruptive technology and product comes along. Server virtualization was such a technology, and vSphere became the product that led the market for data center virtualization, creating a new dominant vendor in the data center management industry – VMware. In this post, we analyze the potential for Docker to have similar disruptive effects.

What Is Docker?

For those of you who do not know, Docker is just another layer of virtualization. Instead of virtualizing an entire server with its operating system, middleware stack, and applications, Docker virtualizes the boundary between the Linux OS and the application and its required libraries. What Softricity (which became Microsoft App-V) did for Windows desktop applications, Docker does for Linux server-based applications. The image below and to the right shows Docker as a layer in the Linux guest OS and then Docker creating a container for “App B” and the libraries of App B. The idea is that you can then manage App B as a container, update that container incrementally, and run it on any reasonable distribution of Linux.

Docker creates container for “App B” and libraries
Does Docker Threaten VMware?

At VMworld 2014, VMware made a point of promising that it would make vSphere “into the best place to run Docker containers.” There are several things that obviously motivate this strategy on VMware’s part. The first is that the alternative to running Docker containers on vSphere is to run them on bare-metal Linux or on Linux with KVM underneath. Clearly, VMware is not interested in seeing either bare-metal Linux or KVM gain any momentum. But there is a more fundamental fear. The following could easily happen:

  • Red Hat is a huge proponent of Docker, as Docker is likely to cause an increase in the number of applications running on Linux.
  • But Docker is missing much of the functionality that would make it into a competitor of vSphere—functionality such as that of vMotion and all of the features it enables, including DRS, HA, FT, and SRM.
  • Since Red Hat competes with VMware in the data center virtualization market, Red Hat should be motivated to address these shortcomings in Docker.
  • Should some combination of Red Hat and Docker address the enterprise data center management shortcomings of Docker, a serious competitor to VMware would emerge.
A Possible VMware Response

One of the time-honored strategies in the computer industry is that when Vendor A is threatened by Vendor B, Vendor A will try to cut off the supply of oxygen to Vendor B. This is most often done by trying to give away for free a product that competes with the product Vendor B relies upon for revenue. This is what Microsoft did to Novell and Netscape (and is still trying to do to VMware), and the lessons are not lost on VMware.

So, if Red Hat is now poised to be much more of a threat to VMware than it ever has been, how could VMware use Docker to threaten Red Hat? Here’s how:

  • Take a look at that “Guest OS” box in the diagram above, on the right. That guest OS is Linux. In most of VMware’s accounts, that Linux is Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).
  • RHEL is the bread and butter of Red Hat. It is where most of Red Hat’s revenues come from. It is Red Hat’s oxygen.
  • What exactly does that guest OS do? Well, it schedules CPU and manages memory, network I/O, and storage I/O to the containers running above it.
  • But all of that scheduling and management is already done in vSphere. The hypervisor is what is really in charge of those hardware resources.
  • The guest OS is, in fact, a completely redundant layer of resource management and scheduling once the libraries that the application depends on are isolated in a Docker container.
  • So, VMware could simply come up with its own distribution of Linux. It could be based on CoreOS.
  • If VMware came up with its own Linux distribution and supported it for free as a part of the existing vSphere support contract, there would be no reason for customers to pay Red Hat to support RHEL.
  • This move would also allow VMware to achieve its goal of making vSphere an extremely efficient execution environment for Docker, as this would essentially mean that Docker containers would be running natively in the vSphere guest.
  • It would also deprive Red Hat of a significant amount of revenue (oxygen). Which would help VMware in its competition with KVM and Red Hat OpenStack.
  • If you remember your ancient history, EMC acquired FastScale, a “Just Enough OS” company, in 2009. The FastScale technology might be just what VMware needs to figure out how to produce a minimalist version of Linux.

If VMware delivers its own Linux, tailored for the efficient execution of Docker containers in virtual machines, it will accomplish two goals. It will make vSphere into a great platform for Docker, and it will threaten the revenue stream of Red Hat, a company that is poised to become a dangerous competitor to VMware.

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