VMware's fortunes hinge on cloud strategy success

VMware has locked up the hypervisor lead in the data center and now wants to dominate cloud services. Enterprise IT shops must weigh its expertise against Microsoft in the enterprise and Google in the cloud.

VMware Inc. has been the darling of the data center for a long time, but now the company must proceed cautiously if it wants to stay relevant. It has to maintain its bread and butter: the enterprise customer. It also must press ahead into cloud services and hope that those customers follow along.

The high-level message from VMware is to simplify IT for the administrator.

John Robb, VP of product management for Zimbra

VMware's recent buying binge addresses the company's two-pronged strategy of marrying public cloud computing with slowly evolving private clouds. Just to recap a few of those purchases: The company bought SpringSource for its Java development platform, followed by GemStone Systems for its data caching technology and RabbitMQ for messaging. VMware also snapped up email server maker Zimbra from Yahoo last year.

The company's philosophy on the future of enterprise IT is this: Corporations must be more platform agnostic. Every application will be fully virtualized, mostly automated and controlled and administered via the Web, able to be hosted practically anywhere and moved around at the drop of a hat. Of course, in a perfect world, all of this will be powered by VMware and operated by the soon-to-be released vCloud application programming interface (API) and vCloud Service Director.

"VMware is in a position to see this evolution occurring better than many players, and this accounts for their efforts to promote cloud and provide cloud options for their customers," said Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data Corp., a Santa Cruz, Calif., market research company.

VMware hustles to stay ahead of Microsoft, Google and IBM
Evans Data also identified IBM and Google as the top choices for public cloud computing among developers. Microsoft looms from within the enterprise. According to a recent Cloud Development Survey published by Evans Data, Microsoft is VMware's chief competitor for hypervisors.

"After being the leader for a long time, Microsoft has drawn about even with [VMware] in this area," Garvin said.

That's why VMware has been devoting so much energy to vCloud and its hosting partnerships in vCloud Express: so that it has a cloud offering -- lightweight, self-service, automated, scalable -- to compete with platforms like Microsoft's Azure, Google App Engine and IBM's Smart Business Test and Development Cloud.

VMware's vCloud pitch is that enterprises can use their virtual machine (VM) images and tools or choose VMware-friendly, ready-made virtual appliances from the VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace. But vCloud lacks a key ability: It does not work with an existing VMware environment, even if it's hosted in the same facility at vCloud Express.

The vCloud Service Director and the new vCloud APIs are supposed to fix all that. The Service Director will ostensibly turn a vSphere environment into an automated self-service cloud environment, and the vCloud API will work across an internal VMware environment and vCloud Express hosters, so users can treat public clouds as if they were a part of the VMware IT environment; fully managed, secure and accounted for.

Recent pricing changes reflect this as well. VMware now charges per active virtual machine, just like a public cloud provider does, instead of per physical CPU that hosts VMs. The company will disclose other pricing changes designed to reflect consumption, like charging per RAM hour and possibly for bandwidth or machine traffic. The vCloud Express hosting providers set their own prices, so these changes reflect VMware's need to get a grip on margins and make sure it's soaking up the proper amount of revenue from its partners.

VMware's Open PaaS strategy
The other side of cloud computing is application development and delivery -- VMware's so-called "Open PaaS" strategy. VMware knows it has the default virtualization platform for most enterprises (84%, according to some reports) and it wants its technology to be home base for developers to create and deploy applications designed to be services "in the cloud."

One example is VMforce.com, a hosted Java development platform that is reputed to make developing and deploying apps push-button simple. Developers will be able to drag and drop code and applications from their own SpringSource platform or develop directly in VMforce.com and push them live with a click or two of the mouse.

Easy-bake applications for your VMware cloud
"We see the trend in the market as a change in the way end users get software and the way managers deploy it," said John Robb, VP of product management for Zimbra. Acquired in 2010 from Yahoo Inc., VMware's Zimbra open source email server has been released by VMware as a fully automated and virtualized appliance designed to be installed and administered through a Web portal, like in-house Software as a Service (SaaS).

VMware is in a position to see this [cloud] evolution occurring better than many players.

Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data Corp

Robb said that the convenience and the automation in one transportable package is the trend, letting IT treat their infrastructure and applications in cloud-like ways.

"Look at what's happening at the application level and you'll see things becoming device agnostic and [controlled by] Web interfaces. And you'll see the CIO demanding that applications be virtualized so they can tell that TCO story," said Robb.

"The high-level message from VMware is to simplify IT for the administrator," he said. Of course, simplicity does not mean cheap, and many enterprises already have significant investments and no pressing need for more gadgets.

That's a tall order, of course, but the 1.0 release of the vCloud APIs are in the hands of hosters and partners right now, and they say it appears to be reaching toward that potential. VMware will be revealing more vCloud Express service providers at the VMworld conference at the end of August, along with its launch of Service Director and the vCloud API.

But how much of vCloud is vReal?
Some IT industry watchers note that VMware's cloud hype is more talk than walk at this point. Even after vCloud is released, enterprises wont' be racing to adopt public cloud services. There are rumors that vCloud Express only has hundreds or maybe thousands of customers who use it in small-scale projects.

Also unproven are out-of-the-box Java apps, written by developers with VMforce.com. While developers are eager for cloud, 60% of them want it in-house. Either way would suit VMware, and developers are a classic use case for cloud. The easy-on, easy-off model fits the bill. But will cloud computing catch fire in enterprises with less dynamic IT needs?

"Not right now," said Brian Denton, CTO at medical, legal services firm ExamWorks. "We're pretty pleased with what we've got."

Denton is not behind the times. He's consolidated all his IT needs into Cisco Unified Computing Systems (UCS) and virtualized with VMware, including VMware View, to handle virtual desktops for 700 employees in 25 locations. But he's not jumping in so fast.

Denton said vCloud doesn't give him anything he doesn't already have. He won't try public cloud services because, like so many others, he is concerned about security risks that may cause a regulatory violation, plus potential problems coming from unseen technological complexity. As far as he's concerned, having the UCS in place gives him the entire private cloud he needs right now; he'll wait until he's gotten his money's worth and save vCloud for another day.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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