Thoughts Around Service Provider’s Public Cloud Platforms

This article was originally posted on the VMware vCloud corporate blog. I am re-posting here for the convenience of the readers of my personal blog.

Over the last few days there have been a bunch of articles that , all of a sudden, are surprisingly (when you consider the sources) quite pointed in their recognition of how VMware technologies are superior compared to the rest of the market.

Well, check out the articles for yourself. There’s one on SearchVirtualization.com. Another one on Virtualization Review. Or try Virtualization.info’s recap of an article by Gartner (more on this in a moment.) And, finally, the SearchServer.com blog had this interesting post: Hyper-V vs. VMware not much of a fight these days. Want further confirmation? Check out some of the Tweet streams on the subject.

So what happened? It (almost) all originated from an article that Gartner analyst Thomas J. Bittman posted with the unassuming title Virtualization Then and Now: Symposium 2009-2010. What caused the uproar? In his third point, he specifically called out an “underperforming” Hyper-V and the market dominance of VMware. I’ve included it here for your convenience:

Hyper-V is under-performing. Maybe my expectations were too high, but Hyper-V has not grabbed as much market share as I was predicting. I especially thought that Microsoft would be the big beneficiary of midmarket virtualization. Surveys show otherwise – VMware is doing pretty well there. Here’s a theory. Clients repeatedly told us that live migration was a big hole in Microsoft’s offering – even for midmarket customers (to reduce planned downtime managing the parent OS). Microsoft’s Hyper-V R2 (with live migration) came out 8/2009. Was that too late? Did the economy put pressure on midsized enterprises to virtualize early, before Hyper-V R2 was proven in the market? Or did VMware just have too much mindshare?

Personally, I am not surprised at all about what’s happening. We could debate forever why that is happening. But, suffice it to say that the amount of value customers are extracting from VMware technologies simply outpaces the amount they are paying. That’s why customers continue to use (and expand) their VMware deployments in their datacenters. But, you know what? This is not the most important point of this post.

In fact, I found Bittman’s fifth point even more interesting. Perhaps, this is because I have direct experience with what he’s talking about. Over the last few months, I have worked primarily on public cloud initiatives in support of VMware’s vCloud strategy.Specifically I’ve worked with strategic service provider partners across the spectrum with telcos, system integrators and outsourcers. Here’s what Bittman had to say:

IaaS Providers Shifting to Commercial VMs. IaaS (infrastructure as a service) providers have focused on open source and internal technologies to deliver solutions at the lowest possible cost. But that’s changing. In the past year, there’s been a rapidly growing trend for IaaS providers to add support for major commercial VM formats – especially VMware, but also Hyper-V and XenServer. The reason? To create an easy on-ramp for enterprises. As enterprises virtualize (and in many cases, build private clouds), the IaaS providers know that they need to make interoperability, hybrid, overdrafting, migration as easy as possible. The question is whether that will require commercial offerings (such as VMware’s vCloud Datacenter Services, or Microsoft Dynamic Datacenter Alliance), or if conversion tools will be good enough. I tend to think that service providers better make the off-premises experience as identical to the on-premises experience as possible – and I’m not sure conversion will get them there.

While I tend to always take what analysts say with a grain of salt since, after all, they have been predicting that “the Intel Itanium processor will take over the world and will replace all Xeon processors” (a moment of silence for Itanium please), I have to say that this makes a lot of sense.

Fortunately, I see that most of the service providers I am working with understand the challenges of federating clouds. I touched on these challenges (and opportunities!) in my blog post vSphere, vCloud and the Meaning of Open. And I have stressed the importance of the APIs and, specifically, the notion of the vCloud API bus (note this is not a formal VMware name but rather a name I personally came out with). In my article I talked about the value, for service providers, of exposing a standard set of APIs to be able to federate with enterprises. In that discussion I made the claim that the service provider could even expose those standard APIs without having to use vCloud Director but, rather, they could build their own tool to create their back-end implementation of the vCloud APIs on top of vSphere. Further, I said:

You can even go a step further and choose not use vSphere if you wish. If you want to federate with vSphere end-users the service provider would have to deal with having to change the disk format from the Virtual Machine Disk Format (VMDK) to another format. Arguably, this may not be the smartest thing to do, but it is something you can technically do.

That is, in short, what I believe Bittman was trying to argue. Yes, you can technically do the conversion to accommodate a different format but there’s a bigger question. Is it worth the complexity? I don’t think so. In fact, I agree completely with Bittman’s comment that “…service providers better make the off-premises experience as identical to the on-premises experience as possible – and I’m not sure conversion will get them there.”

While building a public cloud with free and open source technologies may sound compelling–at first–the capability to federate and the end-user experience one can offer may, in reality, be sub-optimal for existing VMware customers looking to consume public cloud resources. Furthermore, consider how Bitman’s two points are intimately tied together. The more end-users are out there designing and implementing VMware-based datacenters, the more service providers will be looking at deploying VMware-based public cloud offerings to provide them with a homogenous (and superior!) experience compared to other technologies available. That goes for both for private and public cloud deployments.

Still, this is not the end of the story. We are also working on other technologies (e.g. the vCloud Client Plugin, which I referred to in the article above) that will make the experience even more transparent.

And just in case you’re wondering…no this does not create lock-in. This has more to do with end-users extracting as much value out of our technology as possible, whether for private deployments (arguably the best value for the money) or, by service providers leveraging the same technologies to provide a superior experience both from a federation perspective (the topic of this post), as well as, from ongoing management cost perspective for running the cloud (a good topic for a future post).

Massimo.

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