VMware to Join OpenStack Camp

By Tiffany Trader

August 28, 2012

Cloud makes for some strange bedfellows. VMware is seeking to become a member of the foundation that governs OpenStack, the popular cloud-building framework. Intel and NEC are also applying. The news, uncovered the day before the annual VMworld gala, caught the cloud community by surprise and sparked speculation as to VMware’s motives. OpenStack was launched by NASA and Rackspace in July 2010 as an open-source alternative to proprietary cloud vendors like VMware. This is one of those full-circle moments.

vmware logoVMware created the technology that is a key enabler of enterprise clouds – be they public or private: virtualization. The company went on to become the dominant vendor for both virtualized datacenters and private clouds. In a recent survey of over 100 execs, VMware was ranked the number one IaaS provider, with OpenStack coming in second. But the open source cloud project is in strong growth mode; there’s no telling how long VMware would remain in front.

In the last few months, OpenStack has gained supporters and relevancy. In April, 19 technology companies joined forces to form the OpenStack Foundation, helping put to rest criticisms that founder Rackspace’s disproportionate control diminished its assertions of openness. As of now, the company has eight Platinum members: AT&T, Canonical, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Nebula, Rackspace, Red Hat and SUSE; and 11 Gold members: Cisco, ClearPath Networks, Cloudscaling, Dell, DreamHost, ITRI/CCAT, Mirantis, Morphlabs, NetApp, Piston Cloud Computing and Yahoo. VMware hypervisor rival Citrix used to be a major OpenStack supporter, until it left the fold in April – opting to back competing open source play, CloudStack, obtained in the cloud.com acquisition.

While OpenStack has been community-building, VMware has been busy with some open-sourcing of its own. The company launched its open PaaS play, Cloud Foundry, in 2010. And then last month, VMware, in a one-two cloud punch, purchased DynamicOps and Nicira. An OpenStack supporter, Nicira is key to OpenStack’s networking technology. This is just one sign that the lines between the camps were starting to break down.

Further evidence of VMware’s expanding cloud play can be traced to its relationship with gold-level OpenStack member, Piston Cloud. Back in April, Piston – which was no doubt thrilled to nab the trademark on “Enterprise OpenStack Company” – started a community open source project to enable VMware’s Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service to run on OpenStack. The official announcement explained that the two companies were working together to develop the Cloud Provider Interface that integrates OpenStack cloud infrastructure with Cloud Foundry. The stated goal was to include the integration capability in a future release of Piston Enterprise OS and submit the project to the OpenStack satellite ecosystem for consideration as an OpenStack incubation project.

A week ago, just days before VMware’s OpenStack aspirations were made public, Piston Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer Gretchen Curtis remarked on the unusual pairing:

Why this unlikely partnership? The answer is simple — we share Cloud Foundry’s vision of enabling developers, and like VMware, we believe the future of PaaS is inherently open source and multi-cloud.

A proposal signed by VMware Chief Technology Officer Steve Herrod outlines VMware’s intention to obtain gold-level foundation membership, which according to OpenStack governance bylaws requires an investment of at least 0.25 percent of revenue, a $50,000 minimum and a $200,000 maximum. As stated on its application, VMware’s intended buy-in is $66,666.67. Intel and NEC are also seeking gold-level membership, and have each ponied up $200,000 for the honor.

The applications were on the agenda for the first full Board of Directors meeting, which was scheduled to take place earlier today, as outlined in this OpenStack Foundation Wiki.

Platinum membership, which requires $500,000 per year and a three-year commitment, is limited to a fixed number of spots and there are currently no openings. This could explain why all three companies on today’s agenda are seeking the lesser-tier membership. The significance of this is that none of these companies will get board membership, although they will have voting rights.

The applications do not require an essay of intent, so the question remains: what is VMware’s motivation? It would seem that not only are they losing market share to open source, but there is no longer much profit in hypervisors, VMware’s bread and butter. So the company is branching out and moving up stack, creating and leveraging partnerships along the way. They’re competitors yes, but they need each other. An idea that Ms. Curtis of Piston Cloud sums up well:

In IT – as in any business – co-opetition is not uncommon. Yes, we will continue to challenge VMware’s walled garden, but we will also work together for the greater good of developers and the OpenStack community.

VMware could be saying basically the same thing from behind its (more porous?) perimeter. Interestingly, according to the Foundation’s “Framework Acknowledgement” letter (aka commitment letter), “Platinum Members must be strategically aligned with the OpenStack Mission and provide funding and operational support,” but the mandate for Gold Members only requires that they “be active members of the community and provide funding.” Food for thought – this rather obvious omission could be interpreted as pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability of competition.

For its part, attracting VMware to its camp can be seen as a win for OpenStack. Formed as a response to growing closed-wall dominance by VMware on the private side and Amazon on the public side, the strategy has always been framed as the joining of forces against a common enemy. Which leaves a question: what do you do when you’ve subdued your foe, either through conquest or assimilation? The OpenStack ecosystem includes many natural competitors, but each of these companies is relying on a strong core code base for its success. While the current “Essex” version was good enough for Rackspace to launch with, other OpenStack distros, like Red Hat’s, are pinning their launch dates to the “Folsom” release, expected out sometime this fall. Once the early adopters get going with their distros, there will likely be some jockeying for position as the already thin line between cooperation and competition gets stretched even further.

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