Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nagging questions from VMworld 2011: balancing bias versus cloud vision

For those of us who attend VMworld each year that don’t work for VMware, it’s always a bit of a spectator sport. What will they announce, what will they say-but-not-really-say, what ends up being the synthesis that the audience (and the pundits) take away at the end of the whole thing?

VMworld 2011 was no exception. Now that it has been a couple weeks and the news has sunken in a bit, there are still a few things that are nagging me, mainly from the keynotes that VMware CEO Paul Maritz and CTO Steve Herrod gave. The primary question? How does an IT shop carefully balance the various pieces of visionary cloud computing direction that VMware laid out with the inherent bias that comes with any vendor show of this nature.

Any tightrope walkers out there? I ask because there was certainly a lot of both from what I picked up.

Somebody Told Me VMware has cloud fever

There were a bunch of comments, especially from the keynotes, that I thought were spot on at VMworld. First and foremost, Maritz acknowledged that VMware isn’t immune to “cloud fever.” In fact, he admitted that they “tend to use this word a lot.” An understatement, for sure, for VMware and nearly everyone else for that matter. In Maritz’s estimation, cloud computing “will re-define IT over the coming decade.” Given the possibilities that cloud opens up, and many of the topics I’ve written about here before, I heartily agree.

However, for someone who grew up debugging the print controller for some of the first ATMs, Maritz has a pretty negative view of some technologies that actually make up the IT infrastructure for many of today’s big enterprises. And most of the biases I heard during his keynote ignored many of the issues IT has to deal with to the benefit of Maritz’s current employer (no surprise there).

Out with the old?

Maritz described a future in which the recommended path forward is to “ring-fence” (and eventually replace) the mainframe and mini-computer legacy environments. He then talked about the “client-server legacy” environment as one that was “too big to walk away from.” I’m betting folks from the biggest IT shops globally that heard that chuckled a bit. Many of their pre-client-server systems certainly qualify as “too big to walk away from,” too. (I know my former employer, CA Technologies, would certainly agree with that.)

Instead, Maritz’s guidance focused on ways to modernize client/server infrastructure and operations to help figure out how to bring those newer apps forward. And he suggested investing in cloud-based environments for those new and renewed apps.

I think this approach pretty obviously spins the focus onto the pieces of the IT environment that VMware can deal with most effectively at the moment. It calls those out as most important and actionable and gives short shrift to things VMware’s not good at. Unfortunately, this spin sacrifices the way a customer would realistically evaluate their heterogeneous IT environments. I believe there’s much more of a balance in value among the apps and infrastructures from different computing eras in large organizations than VMware leads you to believe. Sure, many shops would love to dump some of their old stuff and trade it in for something new and with fewer strings attached, but there are some golden rules of IT that really recommend you not do that. At least not all at once.

Cloud enables IT consumers into the driver’s seat

While I may argue with Maritz’s views in some areas, there are other areas where he is dead on. I think he is right to point out the impact of the IT consumers on everything that IT ops is doing. The cloud, he said, “represents the next major interaction between enterprise IT and consumer-driven change.”

One of the biggest stats Martiz dropped on us underscored the staggering impact of the mobility that IT consumers are demanding in particular. Three years ago, 95% of the devices connected to the Internet were PCs. Three years from now Maritz expected that number to drop to just 20%. That’s a big endorsement of the “post-PC world” that Steve Jobs has been evangelizing.

Herrod’s technology keynote was very focused on ways to enable IT to deal with increasing demands for mobility and a new set of devices, like my iPad and other tablets and smart phones. Herrod and Vittorio Viarengo did a great job of showing a few scenarios in a way that was direct, easy to understand, and got the audience laughing a bit (Herrod knows his somewhat-quirky audience very well). The fact that the demos showed some of VMware’s cooler end user computing initiatives like Horizon, Project Octopus, AppBlast and a few others, didn’t hurt.

But, this, too, was presented through the lens of VMware’s take on the world. Not everyone was convinced, of course. Kurt Marko called the mobile efforts “theoretically promising, but realistically perplexing” in his Information Week article. GigaOm's Derrick Harris wondered in a post why consumers wouldn't just, in the end, prefer the consumer brand versions of everything that they already know from their personal lives for things like DropBox instead of a VMware-flavored version.

Filling in the pieces

Finally, the other thing that VMware accomplished at VMworld this year was to make it clear that in order to help customers pursue application renewal efforts and support the trends toward mobility and IT consumerization, they are working hard to fill in all the gaps. Themselves. Or at least, that’s the impression they are giving.

I found it sort of fitting that they had the Killers playing their party this year. Many of the messages that they seemed to be giving off (consciously or unconsciously) were that they were working to be killers themselves – of much of their own ecosystem.

How? They announced (or had previously announced) that they were:

• Going directly at the management and operations space
• Going after databases
• Aiming at the storage space (a logical fit, given their EMC ownership), building a sort of Dropbox for the enterprise.
• Providing a platform (Cloud Foundry) for developers to easily get started
• Going after the virtual desktop
• Going after mobility and a common experience that is not device-based
• Continuing to work on security, e-mail, collaboration, social media efforts

And even if this isn’t an exhaustive (or sufficiently precise) list, you get my drift. The other thing that struck me: they mentioned very few of their partners in their main keynotes.

A new Day and Age?

In the end, in addition to realizing their view of what’s possible for customers with virtualization and cloud, VMware has a very specific goal. VMware is hoping for a world in which IT doesn't need to go anywhere else. Or at least not many other places. Of course, what big vendor doesn't, especially as the cloud threatens to be disruptive to the business they currently have going?

But not many IT orgs want to give VMware permission to take a Joy Ride through their procurement department, saying “trust me, Everything Will Be Alright.”

Mr. Brightside...or Losing Touch?

So, this brought up a few nagging questions for me. Are they trying to do too much themselves, threatening to push their customers to be much more adversarial? And, in taking on all of these things themselves at the expense of some of their partners, are they creating a Hot Fuss and turning friends into enemies unnecessarily? There's a lot of data and market reality that make it very hard to fault how they are acting. A Sand Hill Research report I saw on Cloud Commons cites VMware as the most likely “go to” vendor for private cloud projects. By a long shot.

So why not? There’s no reason VMware shouldn't head down the path they are on (in fact, there a lot of strategic reasons why the definitely should). But customers need to be careful. They need to make sure they understand the preconceptions that VMware buries in their vision for IT’s future. It doesn’t always match the way a big customer views IT. Sometimes that’s because they are looking into a future that the customers can’t see yet. And sometimes that’s because they are coloring the future in a shade that best suits them.

One place we tried to have a reality-based discussion at VMworld was in the “Cloud Computing Realities” panel that Brian Gracely of Cisco, Mathew Lodge of VMware, and I (then with CA Technologies) did with Stu Miniman of Wikibon. Here are 3 other good VMworld write-ups that I can recommend if you want a dose of the real world: Andi Mann’s, Bruce Milne's (both from CA), and Chris Wolf’s (from Gartner). And for a dose of humor, check out Microsoft's humorous poke at VMware for being "stuck in the IT past."

And get ready…this happens all over again in mid-October in Copenhagen. Though, I’ll be watching VMworld Europe 2011 from the comfort of my new desk and the usually-reliable-and-often-amusing #vmworld Twitter feed.

Extra credit goes to those who found all the Killers song and album titles buried in this post (though I made it pretty easy). It's getting to be a little tradition around here. Check out my VMworld 2009 and 2010 wrap-ups -- you'll see I'm no Foreigner to these sort of (in)Excess puns.

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