Nebula's Kemp Challenges VMware's Cloud Vision

Chris Kemp, former NASA CIO and OpenStack founder, says Nebula's server scale-out approach is superior to VMware's server-consolidation play to run next-gen applications.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

August 29, 2013

6 Min Read

VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines

VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines

VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

As the CEO of a cloud startup, it's a little frustrating for Chris Kemp to sit back and watch VMware bid for cloud customers.

Kemp, with no official role at VMworld, has been among the 22,000 VMware customers, partners and onlookers at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. As events unfolded, Kemp saw VMware saying it was offering a different kind of cloud than the one he is trying to deliver.

Kemp's company, Nebula, makes turn-key private cloud systems based on open-source OpenStack, and the former NASA CTO and CIO thinks there's an era dawning in which many mission-critical applications will be run on cloud architecture. He doesn't care whether the cloud is inside the enterprise or outside. Nebula will power the private clouds, and OpenStack will be tailored into public cloud offerings.

That sounds something like VMware when it describes vCloud Hybrid Service. VMware wants customers to have the option of linking their on-premises, virtualized environment to a similarly configured service outside it. It will be happy to supply both. The service provided might be through a third party, such as Peak Colo or Bluelock, or it might be from one of VMware's public cloud data centers.

[ Want more on the public vs. private cloud debate? See Why IT Is Struggling To Build Private Clouds. ]

But Kemp insists VMware and Nebula are approaching a similar problem from two radically different points of view. VMware has solved the problem of how to get more than one data center application to run on a data center host. In the process it's lifted the application up off a particular piece of hardware and made it available to move around or move out to a public cloud.

Nebula started out as cloud software at NASA, trying to solve the problem of displaying, moving and storing data that was being captured in huge quantities by NASA telescopes and space vehicles. It was a problem more akin to mounting Google Search, running online retailing or Microsoft Office 365, then hosting a set of discrete legacy applications.

"VMware tools put a lot of small apps on one server. Nebula takes 100 servers and turns them back into one machine to run one really big application," Kemp said in an interview Wednesday, at the peak of VMworld. Next-generation applications will need to absorb huge amounts of data off of websites and e-commerce systems and apply analytics to it. They'll need to be able to command more horsepower, in the form of modularly added servers, as they need them.

In Kemp's view, VMware is better automating the enterprise's extensive library of existing applications. VMware has grown rapidly because it is meeting the needs of today's business, Kemp conceded. But does that mean VMware vCloud Hybrid Service is going to be the best option to meet the needs of next-generation applications?

Nebula and other OpenStack vendors, or for that matter, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google, will be in a much better position to run scale-out applications than VMware public clouds will. The next-generation application won't be a server-consolidation play; it will be a server scale-out play, with the cloud software managing many commodity servers as a single system, Kemp claims.

Kemp said Nebula is finding traction with companies that understand the difference between legacy and future needs. One such customer is Xerox Parc, which needs scalable systems to run its research applications, and the Translational Genomics Institute, which needs to scale analysis of data required in gene sequencing.

Kemp said Nebula is using Workday, and NetSuite software-as-a-service (SaaS) as much as possible, rather than hosting a bunch of enterprise applications in-house. Other companies likewise will shrink their need for VMware's virtualized, on-premises applications as their use of SaaS increases. There's no competitive value in maintaining them in the data center if they are merely applications used in a similar manner by many businesses. Companies will pour their future development efforts into an application that captures the core of the company's business and makes it digitally available to thousands of users. The closest thing to what Kemp is talking about that's run today, he said, is the Hadoop implementation inside many businesses. In some cases, Hadoop is used to capture, sort and manage all the data on each customer. By applying analytics, the employees responsible for the customer get a more up-to-date and complete view of expectations and needs, Kemp noted.

The VMware IT administrator is, figuratively speaking, "inside one machine, trying to carve it up into 10. The Nebula IT administrator is in 10 machines, trying to run them as one," he added.

By talking about how it's a cloud vendor also, VMware is "adding confusion to the discussion" of cloud computing and "blurring what is actually black and white."

That may be, but in an interview with Bill Fathers, VMware's general manager of hybrid cloud, the division between pre-cloud and current cloud firms is not as clear cut as that.

VMware had the option of going to an existing hardware supplier in which it has invested -- Virtual Computing Environment -- and installing its server racks as the quickest way for it to implement the vCloud Hybrid Service. It hasn't done that. VCE designs for today's virtualized workloads, and Fathers knows that his hybrid service will need to be commodity infrastructure, competitive with Amazon Web Services, rather than the highly engineered, highly optimized VCE server racks. (VCE is a subsidiary of EMC and Cisco Systems, using VMware virtualization software on Cisco's Unified Computing System. Intel and VMware are "investors" in VCE, not owners.)

Fathers won't say exactly what VMware is using, but confirmed it's closer to Microsoft, Google and Amazon's commodity and white-box server approach than VCE's.

That means VMware understands two of the essentials of the cloud. It is resilient software, capable of overcoming a hardware failure in a cluster, and it enjoys economies of scale because it's based on commodity hardware parts.

An open question is whether VMware will get all the other essentials of cloud into its vCloud Suite as fast as the OpenStack project can inject them into its platform. VMware joined OpenStack in part because it understood its own development teams couldn't outstrip the project in key, emerging areas, such as software-defined networking.

So there's a race underway, with the spectators being asked, "Who'd you rather get your cloud software from?" A team dedicated to virtualizing and automating everything in today's data center, with all the drawbacks of its legacy systems? Or a team dedicated to the new mode of operations, focused on running one very large, mission-critical application effectively?

VMware might say Kemp, in his black-and-white formulation, is imposing a simplicity that's never going to reside in the enterprise data center. But both parties agree the nature of enterprise software is changing fast, and they're in a race to produce the most value for that next-generation application owner.

Learn more by attending the Interop conference track on Cloud Computing and Virtualization in New York from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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