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9/3/2010
01:30 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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A Bolder, Brassier VMware Emerges From The Cloud

Around the breakfast table at VMworld, attendees from places like Calgary, Little Rock and Charleston, S.C., remarked on how Ubuntu, Microsoft and Red Hat were barely visible at the show this year. Microsoft had a little booth I never succeeded in spotting; Red Hat had a 10-by-10 on the perimeter. It all suddenly seemed so obvious.

Around the breakfast table at VMworld, attendees from places like Calgary, Little Rock and Charleston, S.C., remarked on how Ubuntu, Microsoft and Red Hat were barely visible at the show this year. Microsoft had a little booth I never succeeded in spotting; Red Hat had a 10-by-10 on the perimeter. It all suddenly seemed so obvious.Microsoft, Red Hat and Ubuntu are all operating system vendors heavily invested in some other form of virtualization than VMware's. And they're all wary of VMware's widening ambitions and description of a future operating system for the data center, based on its own virtualization layer. Microsoft prefers to talk about Hyper-V and its management component, Virtual Machine Manager in Systems Center. Red Hat is sticking to its open source guns and going with KVM. Ubuntu also packages up KVM and Xen. What makes the operating system vendors nervous is that VMware CEO Paul Maritz talks as if the operating system has become irrelevant. Maritz Tuesday gave a straight forward talk on how the next phase of VMware's product line will help generate a more flexible data center. Afterward at a meeting with the press, he sounded more combative. In the past innovation has occurred at the operating system level, he said. (Maritz should know. When he was at Microsoft, he oversaw the development and launch of Windows 95, Windows NT and Windows 2000.)

"Now innovation is occurring below and above the operating system, at the virtualization layer and in applications," he said. There hasn't been any real innovation at the operating system level in many years, he added. Operating systems "aren't going to disappear," he said. They're "just one of several components" being managed by the hypervisor and its virtual machine management infrastructure. These perceptions, if correct, are disruptive to operating system-based business models. Microsoft itself has an ongoing commitment to virtualization in the operating system rather than concentrating on it as a separate management layer. Microsoft can line up many resources behind that approach and tie virtual machine operation into its Azure cloud services. But it knows it needs more time to build out all the functionality that VMware is talking about.

That may explain why on Aug. 31 it took out a full page ad in USA Today--distributed in hotels around the Moscone Center--urging customers not to sign three-year contracts with VMware. The ad warned VMware customers: "…signing up for a three-year virtualization commitment may lock you into a vendor that cannot provide you with the breadth of technology, flexibility or scale that you'll need to build a complete cloud computing environment," said the ad signed by Brad Anderson, corporate VP for servers and tools. "Microsoft warning about vendor lock-in is a severe case of the pot calling the kettle black," responded Maritz that day at VMworld.

Indeed, Microsoft may sense the same thing that VMware does: virtualization is yielding new vantage points through which the future of the data center may be managed, if not controlled. Microsoft is nervous because it knows a thing or two about chokepoints.

Microsoft is also leery of VMware's push to help developers produce applications for the future data center architecture, described this year as the "private cloud." If VMware moves into a position where it is the trusted provider of tools to cloud developers -- it's taking a giant step in that direction with its SpringSource unit -- that's a threat to Microsoft's predominance on another front. Given enough time, Microsoft will match up its .Net and Visual Studio with its Azure cloud infrastructure. But there's a large part of the developer universe not yet committed to Azure. SpringSource and its Spring Framework addresses much of the non-Microsoft world. Spring produces lightweight Java applications that compile to a standard byte code that runs in a Java virtual machine. Likewise, the .Net language, C#, produces applications that compile to a byte code that runs in .Net's Common Language Infrastructure. Microsoft's ability to do this exists in the public arena through the Mono's project's ability to reproduce that byte code. The byte codes are close together in that both are based on a shared ANSI standard antecedent.

It's conceivable that in less than three year's time, the Spring Framework will allow .Net programmers to use Spring to produce applications for VMware clouds, and such a capability could seriously impact Microsoft's hold on a key asset, its own developer base. It would prefer that .Net developers be directed only toward Azure and the many options it plans for cloud computing there.

So it's a different VMware that came out for VMworld this year. The show started six years ago with 1,400 attendees. In this, its seventh edition, 17,021 showed up. And a brassier, more confident VMware showed up as well.

That was evident in the short film that preceded Maritz' remarks on Tuesday. Much of what the VMware brass had to say had to do with moving the virtualized part of the data center toward cloud computing. The film short attempted to solicit the meaning of the cloud from an oracle, who looked a lot like the female oracle in the movie, The Matrix. The scene suddenly shifted to a round office tower like the type found at Oracle's campus in Redwood Shores. The camera panned up to the top where, barely visible in the cloud descending over it, was the name Oracle. A voice over made a dismissive remark about cloud computing, as if it was quoting from a Larry Ellison's script. The audience laughed. No one is invested in dissing the cloud any more.

Wait a minute. Oracle wants to be a virtualization vendor, doesn't it? But virtualization leads to the cloud. Oh, we didn't think about that. Oh. I guess we better come up with a cloud strategy.

VMware in the past has gone out of its way to sound like a good partner and a supplier of a base technology that will fit into the big guy's shops. Now it sounds like it's willing to crowd the big guys on their own turf. And I'm at a loss to see what is going to stop it from doing so.

Join Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires, who's leading OMB's Data Center Consolidation Initiative, and other speakers in an InformationWeek Government Webcast designed to help federal IT professionals move ahead with their data center consolidation efforts. It happens Sept. 9 Register now (registration required).

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