VMware Makes Computing New Again

By Derrick Harris

September 19, 2008

As you no doubt are aware, VMware made news this week by announcing its Virtual Datacenter  Operating System (VDC-OS) and vCloud initiatives. While these “cloudy” concepts might seem like science-fiction for old-school IT types, they are just a natural evolution for the crew on the cutting edge. (Note the “v” branding before every piece of this framework. VirtualCenter, the management interface, is now called vCenter.)

According to Reza Malekzadeh, VMware’s senior director of product marketing and alliances, VDC-OS is follows customer usage trends from consolidation to resource aggregation to — once VMware started integrating management and automation features — bigger, more on-demand uses.  At this point, he says, the goal is complete abstraction between the application and the underlying infrastructure — a goal being advanced rapidly through VMware’s partnerships with Cisco on the networking side, and various storage vendors. The end result is an IT framework enabling “unprecedented levels of flexibility.”

“Ultimately, at this level, what they’re telling us,” explains Malekzadeh, “is, ‘Look, what I’m interested in is running my app. Virtualization is great — it’s a great enabler, it’s a nice platform. But what I really care about is making sure my SAP environment runs with these levels of performance, security and manageability, and I don’t really care, fundamentally, what the underlying hardware might be. I really need to make sure it runs.’”

However, in order to ensure wide applicability across a broad spectrum of users and application types, some improvements had to occur within VMware’s set of capabilities. Aside from the advanced work with storage and networking partners, the virtualization leader is making its own infrastructure-level improvements via drastically upgraded vCompute resources. In a VMworld keynote, VMware CTO Stephen Herrod said the company currently allows for individual VMs sporting four vCPUs, 64GB RAM and 100,000 IOPS, but hopes to bulk these numbers up to eight vCPUs, 256GB RAM and 200,000-plus IOPS.  Herrod also noted an initiative to bring power management capabilities to these pools of distributed resources.

Malekzadeh says that while the ability to handle data-intensive applications initially was a ding against virtualized environments, VMware research shows that 80 percent of customers are running databases, middleware, or other such applications in their VMware environments. He concedes, however, that a VDC-OS might not be the best place to house your 3-D multiplayer video game.

Although he could not be specific about a timeframe, Malekzadeh says another goal is to let users overcome geographical boundaries by enabling vCenter to manage federated pools of virtual resources in multiple locations. Frank Gillett, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, says two other necessary improvements are support for multiple hypervisors and the ability to manage physical machines through the vCenter interface. The former probably is easier, he adds, while the latter likely will require close work with partners.

Easy or not, VMware doesn’t seem in any hurry to bring multiple-hypervisor support to vCenter in the near future. “At this point, it is strictly VMware, for two main reasons,” Malekzadeh explains. “The first one is we’re not getting customer demand to do otherwise. And the second one is if you go down the path of providing support for multiple virtualization formats, you’re basically bounding yourself to the lowest common denominator.” To illustrate what this would mean, he points to capabilities on Microsoft’s 2010 roadmap that have been available from VMware for four years.

Of course, Malekzadeh says, “I’d be extremely stupid and arrogant to say, ‘No, I’m not worried about Microsoft.’” But, he adds, VMware isn’t too worried because it provides not only great capabilities, but great value, as well. “We’re definitely not an open source company, but we’re an open technology company,” he says, noting that while there is a free tool for converting VMs to different formats, customers stick with ESX images.

Other capability improvements highlighted in Herrod’s keynote were: ConfigControl, Orchestrator, CapacityIQ, chargeback and AppSpeed for vCenter; the work with Cisco around vNetwork; and Virtual Machine File System, Storage VMotion, thin provisioning and linked clones for vStorage.

On to the Cloud

While it is completely internal, VDC-OS is part of VMware’s cloud computing strategy. (Forrester’s Gillett takes some umbrage with this statement, noting that VMware might just have applied “cloud spray” to what it was doing before.) The most cloudy aspect, though, is what VMware is calling its vCloud initiative — a set of services that allow customers to actively migrate workloads and VMs between their own virtual datacenters and service provider clouds. Among these services are vApp, which allows for policies and service levels to move with the VM from one place to another, and Fault Tolerance, which lets customers run shadow copies of their applications synchronously in separate datacenters. And there are vCloud APIs underway, as well, Herrod said. They include image management, user accounts, chargeback and mobility.

Essentially, says Malekzadeh, VMware wants to be the framework provider for enterprise cloud initiatives, internal or external.

One question, however, is whether the term “cloud computing” will scare away enterprise users. Gillett says Forrester gets very few questions from enterprises using the word “cloud” specifically, although some cloud concerns might be implicit in questions about virtualization. “Basically,” he says, “this idea of a self-service, shared and automated pool is still pretty out there for most users, even though a lot are into virtualization.” A Forrester survey of 1,000 users indicated that 24 percent of OS instances are virtualized, although even that might be a little high, he added.

VMware didn’t have the cloud spotlight to itself this week, though; Citrix also got into the mix with its Citrix Cloud Center (C3) product set. A majority of large Web-based cloud already use Citrix’s free Xen hypervisor, and the C3 product set seeks to improve these environments with additional support and products like XenServer, NetScaler, WANScaler and Workflow Studio.

VMware isn’t too worried about Citrix, either. For one, says Malekzadeh, “people actually are using our stuff.” If you’re running a Xen-based cloud, he says, but no customers are using Xen, you won’t be able to sell the cloud. In addition, Malekzadeh says VMware recently gained a lot of traction in the enterprise service provider community via a program matching software pricing to the providers’ business models.

VMware’s 120,000 customers, large R&D budget and $1.2 billion in revenue only illustrate further how successful the VMware software is, he adds.

Gillett sees these two camps — Web-oriented clouds and enterprise hosters — being the big differentiator between the VMware and Citrix cloud business models. Citrix’s customers, such as Amazon Web Services, tend to focus on Web-oriented workloads, whereas enterprise hosters do stuff that pleases enterprises, explained Gillett. Naturally, VMware, with a dominant lead in enterprise hypervisor deployments, has targeted the latter. And although he sees both as steps in the right direction, Gillett does think Citrix’s move a is little more of a question mark because many large-scale Xen users don’t think they need additional support or products.

Interestingly, though, Gillett says the Web market is growing faster than the enterprise market. While the number of VMs being added by enterprises into hosted environments likely will grow slowly as did virtualization, he describes “screaming growth” for Web workloads. From a server perspective, he adds, Web growth is at 20 percent a year compared to enterprise’s less than 10 percent, but the enterprise still purchases a larger overall percentage of servers.

The Right Solution. Period

Regardless of any wariness about cloud computing or general unease about such a revolutionary take on computing, Malekzadeh is confident VMware can pull it off — sometime between tomorrow and “the science-fiction timeframe.” Not only does it have the tools, but history is on its side. He cites VMware’s continued double-digit growth and place among the fastest software companies to $1 billion in revenue as strong indicators for its success with the VDC-OS vision.

“We fundamentally believe that virtualization is a better way to run your computing requirements,” Malekzadeh says. “It’s just a better way to compute.”

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