Wednesday, September 9, 2009

VMworld '09 proves VMware is no Foreigner to big ambitions

Last week, VMware played host to over 12,000 guests and one '70s/'80s rock band at its annual VMworld event. At its most basic, the show (minus the concert part) was a great place to get some hands-on experience with VMWare technology -- the labs were packed all week (despite a bumpy start).

But I always look at these events as a measuring stick for the ambitions of the host. It was no surprise to me that this year was a summation and a reiteration that VMware wants it all. And it did a pretty clear job of communicating the company's belief that it can deliver.

The truth, of course, is usually a bit divergent from the official PR messages (and nearly always a bit later in arriving). Despite any, um, Head Games that it might be playing, did VMworld give any meaningful clues as to how successful they are likely to be? I think it did.

The star of the show: Is VMware Hot Blooded or As Cold As Ice?
Dan Kusnetzky, now making his home at The 451 Group, used his blog to enumerate a number of things about VMware that may seem obvious, but weren't necessarily the things that VMware went out of its way to reiterate during VMworld.

Dan's comments boil down to these:

· VMware is trying to convince the world of a major underlying assumption: that your IT environment will be pretty homogeneous. Dan reiterates that this isn't likely to be true: "Most large organizations have mainframes, midrange machines, storage servers, and network servers in their datacenters," said Dan. "VMware acts as if either these established mainframe or midrange systems are not there or are going away. Neither are likely to disappear even if industry standard systems are increasingly important."

· VMware is now large enough that much innovation is coming from other, smaller players (he listed Cassatt [now part of CA], Surgient, and others as examples).

· VMware often tramples on the smaller members of its ecosystem.

· VMware is enabling a "good enough" delivery in many existing markets (like HA/Failover) that is impacting those markets, to VMware's benefit and other players' detriment.

· The term “cloud” is getting used for, well, everything. (No argument on this one from any corner, I'd imagine.)
I think most of Dan's observations are true for a couple reasons: at the moment, VMware is a functional monopoly in server virtualization, and they've been in that role for longer than anyone thought would be the case. There are stats now starting to appear that Citrix XenSource and (especially) Microsoft’s Hyper-V are finally starting to make customer inroads. The resulting behavior from VMware, having been alone at the top for so long, is to talk about the world the way they want it to be.

The result of all this? They are getting a big piece of the business where their capabilities are "good enough," and they are a bit predatory when considering what capabilities they want to deliver and what they want to leave for partners. That's not surprising: it's an ecosystem that's a bit out of whack because of their dominant market position.
It's Urgent: Despite their dominance, VMware needs to be successful higher in the stack
VMware's current money-maker -- the hypervisor -- is headed to a price war that will eat into the revenue and margins they've enjoyed. So, they are working on ways to move up the stack. Toward this end, they are extending into management capabilities with vCenter, something I heard Gartner bugging them to do as far back as three years ago. They have extended the work in this space by announcing a focus on helping create and manage internal clouds, then external clouds, then hybrid clouds -- a vision that matches what industry watchers expect.

However, VMware's need to find something "sticky" to keep customers deeply connected to their technology prompted one of their more interesting announcements recently: their acquisition of SpringSource. The people streaming out of Paul Maritz's keynote when SpringSource CEO Rod Johnson came onstage were much more attributable to waiting lists for the next sessions and bad keynote clock management than the content.

It Feels Like the First Time…or at least like it did at BEA
It took attending VMworld for me to put some of the pieces together about the SpringSource deal: namely, that the execs behind this have done things like this before. Seeing VMware COO Tod Nielsen and CMO Rick Jackson onstage reminded me of days past when they (and I) worked together at BEA. (Rod Johnson was a favorite BEAWorld keynote during that time, I might add). BEA was, at that point, trying to do much the same thing as VMware is working to do now: create a platform that its customers would build their applications on top of. BEA did some parts of that really well, some not so well, but the thing I took away from last week was a reminder that these guys have been here before. I heard repeated comments from VMware that knowing much more about the application is going to be of greater and greater importance going forward. It’s no accident.
There are other things, though, that make me question how far they can get. One of those things is their overly homogenous worldview, and their hope that if they say things enough they will be true. Now, if their adoption rates continued unabated, I might even be willing to admit contradicting them would be a bad bet. However, feedback I heard from large customers while at Cassatt and from some of my early sales interactions here at CA says that the easily virtualized servers are going to be (if they aren't already) taken care of pretty soon. Now comes the hard part – the rest of the servers.

This attempt to keep the virtualization efforts going beyond the easy pickings is probably why they repeated from stage that with the performance work they've done recently, there's no reason a customer should worry about virtualizing virtually everything. That's certainly a (Double) Vision I'd ask for much more evidence on before believing sight unseen.

There were some other questions, too, like why Fastscale was acquired by EMC -- not its VMware subsidiary. It may be a signal of a much larger plan afoot by VMware's parent company that's much broader than the more homogeneous approach of VMware. But we'll have to wait to see how that one plays out.
One of the 140 industry analysts at the show said he didn't really feel there was much new announced at this year's VMworld. I had the same impression leaving Paul's keynote. However, maybe that's a point in VMware's favor. VMware is now at a stage where it's filling in the holes. Its vision -- and even slides -- weren't drastically different from last year's. Having worked in and around the internal/private cloud story for a number of years now, I didn't see their story as original or groundbreaking. However, it didn't need to be. The context and the story have already been set.
Will VMware be the, er, Juke Box Hero that helps the cloud go mainstream?
Instead of breaking new ground, I see VMware trying to go mainstream with what some innovators have been talking about for a number of years. In that respect, it's exciting to see. In other respects, caution is still warranted. (Customers, I'm sure, don't need to be told to approach vendors -- especially those with competitors trailing behind by a few steps -- with skepticism.) As always, they are wise to keep in mind VMware's underlying assumptions and make sure to use VMware's technology for whatever aligns with their vision -- not just because of the elegant story VMware lays out. And where customers and VMware don't align, there's a whole ecosystem of partners and would-be competitors willing to help you out.
Though I bet they won't do as good a job helping you relive the music of your youth while making IT infrastructure decisions. VMware has that nailed.
Now if I can just get "I Want to Know What Love Is" out of my head...

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