Does B-hive Acquisition Make VMware a Cloud Vendor?

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

June 2, 2008

They say it’s dangerous to speak in terms of certainties, to take a “black or white” view of the world. Here’s one that should be safe, though: VMware is the leader in the enterprise server virtualization market. Its acquisition of B-hive Networks doesn’t change that, but it could widen the gap between VMware and the rest of the virtualization pack, as B-hive’s Conductor technology will allow VMware to target higher-end, more mission-critical applications, as well as users looking to seriously step up service levels.

According to VMware CTO Stephen Herrod, the company is intent on making VMware environments the best place to run high-end, complex applications, and B-hive’s technology immediately helps them do just that. A virtual appliance that sits outside the software stack, Conductor works across different operating systems and machines, and provides detailed information on application performance — something Herrod says has been “one of the critical factors that people have looked to as they get higher- and higher-end applications running on VMware infrastructure.”

To put it simply, Herrod says that Conductor is able to “think at the level that applications that at,” as opposed to thinking at an infrastructure level. Whereas most of VMware’s measurement tools focus on machine metrics like CPU MHz or RAM usage, B-hive’s tool is able to, for example, recognize what it looks like to report a Web page and what it looks like when a Web page is returned to a user, and can then report on the average time to provide a page. And it is just as proficient looking into more complex, multi-tier applications, says Herrod.

This application-level insight is increasingly vital to VMware users, many of whom are implementing “VMware first” initiatives. Large companies in particular, says Herrod, are putting all of their apps in virtual environments, and they are not hesitant about requesting more support in terms of performance tracking when they migrate mission-critical applications to VMware. “From our standpoint,” he says, “we saw a way to do performance better than it’s done on physical systems, so we see it as another driver for people to bring new applications into their systems.”

“We’re 100 percent serious about making VMware the best place to run mission-critical applications,” Staten stated. “And to the extent we make those easier to manage and more available and more secure than when they’re running natively, that’s absolutely our strategy — and this is one of the pillars in doing that.”

James Staten, principal analyst with Forrester Research, lauds another feature of B-hive’s Conductor — its ability to map dependencies among different VMs that make up a business process. Calling dependency mapping the biggest problem with high availability, Staten says “you may do HA services or clustering or fast re-start for a particular application, but usually a business process involves multiple applications, and not knowing what those dependencies are is problematic.”

Automation is the Future

But these capabilities are just the beginning: B-hive’s technology also allows VMware to significantly advance its plans around automated, policy-based resource allocation, which it refers to as “remediation.” Herrod says the company definitely sees the combination of Conductor and VMware’s current suite of products allowing for this type of functionality, where the tool will be able to measure which parts of a complex application are keeping from peak performance and then adapt resources on the fly to address those problem spots. “It’s recognizing where the bottleneck is, and then using the nice, flexible features of virtualization to attack those,” Herrod said, adding that the ideal implementation of this technology essentially will be a “closed loop of performance monitoring and remediation.”

Forrester’s Staten agrees that the ability of B-hive’s tool to tell the load balancer what to do is “very valuable,” but notes that automation on this level is far beyond what most virtualization users would be able to digest at this point. “What we see in virtual environments is they’re going up the maturity curve, where we have a large number of customers who are starting to make the move from tactically trying it out to strategically implementing it,” he explained. “And they’re not yet, even in the strategically implementing it phase, ready to start automating it.”

The key, Staten believes, is for VMware to make its automation tools ready before users get to that point so they can start learning about and trusting the tools. B-hive was experiencing some early success, he said, but “putting this into [VMware] VirtualCenter will make it possible for a lot more customers to start learning about and getting familiar with automation and actually using it.” In addition, he says, the promise of added support and certification, as well as the presence of VMware’s large R&D team, will add a level of comfort for prospective users.

Can You Say “Cloud Computing?”

Pools of VMs … automated, application-centric resource allocation … this all is starting to sound a lot like cloud computing. VMware sees the connection as well, and Herrod acknowledges that with its ability to read and report and real SLAs for distributed applications, the company is, in many ways, building a cloud for the datacenter. “The way we’ve started to both think about things and hear from our customers is that the notion of a virtual infrastructure is very cloud-like,” he explained, “in the sense that you have applications that are moving around and you don’t necessarily know where they’re running, or care where they’re running, as long as they’re serving the right SLA and staying available.”

If you combine B-hive’s Conductor, VMware’s DRS (Distributed Resource Scheduler), VirtualCenter, and the billing mechanism you find for Vkernel, you have cobbled together everything you need for a dynamic cloud, says Staten. Problems might arise in that a lot of process you might be using B-hive’s technology to map in a cloud environment could cross virtual/physical boundaries, and “VMware has no credibility in managing anything that’s not in the VMware world.” There are other tools that cross that boundary more effectively, he added, but VMware now has a good platform from which to grow these capabilities. What is certain, though, is that the enterprise space definitely will be most comfortable with VMware as the hypervisor layer in an internal cloud infrastructure.

When it comes to the companies building clouds to deliver external services, however, Staten believes VMware’s presence in the market will have little effect, as “external services are being built around Xen because it’s cheap.”

XenServer Interoperability?

Speaking of XenServer, Staten believes the fact that B-hive’s technology supports Xen is one of the more interesting aspects of this acquisition. VMware has always said it wants to support other hypervisors when the time is right, noted Staten, and now they’re inheriting that capability. He isn’t so sure that Xen support will automatically disappear from Conductor just because VMware now owns it, and he believes that continuing to support Xen with this tool will show that they actually do plan to be a heterogeneous management tool, “which they’re absolutely not today.” Additionally, Staten said, VMware is positioned to be the virtualization company and “the center of your universe for managing your virtual world” if they actually expand Xen support within this and other products.

What about from Citrix’s perspective? “I think the big question here is: One to two years down the road, do they continue to support Xen with this product? That’s what I think the people who are using the Xen product actually should be watching,” said Staten. “And what is Citrix’s response? Do they start — right now — designing into their product the B-hive capabilities?” They probably already have been working on it, he added, but there wasn’t a sense of urgency until now because they could point customers to B-hive Networks.

Herrod didn’t comment on Citrix interoperability, but did say that the goal with this acquisition is for it to be very partner-friendly. VMware will be able to measure things it previously could not, he said, and it will provide that performance data through open APIs. Even traditional application performance companies will be able to grab the data and add it to their reporting tools. The plan is to open access to data so that both VMware and its partners can build on it, he said.

The Israeli Connection

Aside from a straight technology acquisition, though, VMware also sought out B-hive for strategic reasons. Herrod said VMware very much wants to be in Israel (where B-hive Networks is based) because there is a very strong R&D base there. Acquiring B-hive shows VMware is “doubling down” on a heavy R&D focus in the country, he added, and this will serve as the basis for an Israeli R&D center. It’s not just about what they have today, but about a world-class engineering team that will help in other areas, he said.

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