Yes, the consensus is that former CEO Diane Greene clashed with the leadership of EMC. Yes, new CEO Paul Maritz has a solid leadership pedigree and an insider’s knowledge of the workings of Microsoft. Yes, 2008 is a year of ramped up competition in the virtualization space. But what does all of that mean when it comes to the direction of VMware?
“VMware’s portfolio is exclusively virtualization, with no divestiture, and the hypervisor is being commoditized,” said Richard Jones, VP and service director, data center strategies, Burton Group. “Clearly, there are serious challenges, but Joe Tucci [EMC’s chairman] knows what’s going on in the market. Diane Green did a great job, but going forward he needed someone who thinks differently.”
What “thinking differently” translates into is mostly guesswork, but it’s educated guesswork. Maritz came to EMC through the acquisition of Pi, a company with the tagline “Moving from personal computing to personal information.” Interpretation: moving from personal computing to cloud computing.
The Next Front in the Virtualization Fight: Virtual Desktops
While VMware has dominated server virtualization, they’ve been slow to move into the virtual desktop space. Citrix probably has the lead here – and they partner with Microsoft.
Then again, you could say, “What virtual desktop space?” Granted, there’s not much going on there, but most analysts and industry insiders believe it’s just a matter of time.
Virtual desktops offer any number of advantages over traditional, client-tethered desktops, including device-agnostic access to applications, greater hardware efficiency, reduced client device costs and tighter IT control over computing environments.
With virtual desktops, though, comes the need for better infrastructure to support those desktops. “VMware’s next big opportunity is to become the infrastructure provider for cloud computing,” Jones said.
Part of Microsoft’s virtualization strategy is to turn the hypervisor into a commodity. VMware should turn the tables and use the same strategy with the OS. What better way to stave of Microsoft’s incursion into virtualization than to devalue Microsoft’s own crown jewel?
When I posed this scenario to Leena Joshi, senior product marketing manager for VMware, she said, “All of the services we provide are OS and application independent. Users don’t want the headaches of all the configuration and customization that is common today.”
As applications are turned into services, the OS disappears. In fact, you could argue that the important software platform may well become the browser – for end users, at least. For IT, it will likely be some sort of data center management suite.
Moving From Applications to Services
“Our vision of cloud computing has to do with how enterprise computing resources become pools of resources available to a variety of applications,” Joshi said.
“Enterprises don’t care about the application or the OS as such. What enterprises want are productivity and performance. What they want are service levels that can be agreed upon and measured. They care about performance parameters, about downtime, about charge-backs. Our vision of cloud computing is that applications will become platform agnostic. It won’t matter where they physically reside, where users access them from, or even what devices those users choose.”
VMware isn’t placing all of its bets on the cloud, though. Another perhaps complementary model is to package mission-critical applications as virtual appliances. The OS is confined. The application is single-purpose, and the goal is to eliminate the problems that come with multiple installations, ongoing configuration changes, and numerous conflicting processes. Maintenance costs are reduced, security should be improved and process conflicts are eliminated.
“When engineers develop applications, they need to test for so many things,” Joshi said. “With an appliance, they can wrap the application and an OS in a tiny, confined package. It’s a very controlled environment. It is a stable environment.”
This isn’t necessarily a separate track from cloud computing. One of the issues with cloud computing, especially with regards to its cousin grid computing, is that as the grid broadens, heterogeneous platforms are inevitable – as are conflicts. If the point of intersection is something simple like the browser, though, those conflicts are more or less eliminated.
“The fundamental thing about virtual machines is that they’re a set of files. That’s it. They’re software. They’re easy to move and reallocate. Hardware, on the other hand, is clunky. There are so many components you have to consider.”
With virtual machines, end users have the luxury of imposing processes on top of them. If you need an additional security layer, click off a box. If you need high-availability, check another box. We’re not to the point where applications and the virtual infrastructures that serve them are that nimble yet, but VMware and others in this space are getting there.
Microsoft and the “Syncromesh”
I should step back and mention that virtual machines don’t offer VMware an end-run around Microsoft. Microsoft has been talking about distributed computing in its many guises for years.
Bill Gates made it a habit of trotting out a new Internet appliance each year for CES or Comdex back in the late nineties and early 2000s. Gates’ successor, Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, focused on P2P and collaborative computing when he founded Groove Networks, and now he’s touting the “syncromesh,” which sounds suspiciously like cloud computing.
The fact remains, though, that while Microsoft talks a good talk about the cloud, and while they do indeed have a successful Internet appliance in the Xbox, they’ve been reluctant to loosen their grip on the OS – and the ongoing revenues associated with it.
This could hurt them in the long run. VMware, for its fault, has no love for the OS and has a clearer vision of the post-PC world. Don’t believe people who say the PC is dead, but, at the same time, don’t believe those who don’t see that smart phones will be a go-to computing platform soon. You could argue that they already are.
In the long run, the declining importance of the PC could be as much the result of demographics as technology.
“My kids could care less about the desktop,” Jones said. “The computing they want to do is done through the mobile phone, and their phones go with them everywhere.” Now that’s a compelling model for anywhere computing.