VMware injects substance into the cloud

There are, at present, various interpretations of the phrase ‘cloud computing’ jostling for legitimacy, and most emanate from vendors twisting the terminology to suit their product range.

One of those vendors is VMware. At its VMworld Europe expo in Cannes in February 2009, the virtualisation software provider added a little more detail to its plan to become the platform provider for the cloud era.

“Our competitors are beginning to catch up with us in terms of making hypervisors [the software layers that enable virtualisation] work together,” explained VMware CEO Paul Maritz in his keynote address. “But we are taking hypervisor co-operation further, to the extent that they become a kind of platform.”

The establishment of an entirely virtualised computing fabric – a cloud by any other name – would allow businesses to dynamically source compute resources such as processing and storage using a mix of internal and third-party infrastructure as demand requires.

Or, as newly appointed COO Tod Nielsen puts it in his one sentence pitch for cloud computing: “Prior to the cloud, business had to provision computing resources for their maximum capacity, but the cloud allows you to provision for your minimum capacity.”

The toolset that VMware hopes businesses – whether hosting providers or end-user organisations – will use to build this virtualised cloud is vSphere. Previously referred to by VMware as a ‘virtual data centre operating system’, vSphere is really an extension of the company’s existing virtualisation toolset, with some added functionality to enable cloud-like virtual machine management, such as load balancing and improved integration with storage systems.

In addition, later this year the company will release an application programming interface called vCloud API, that it hopes will become the de facto standard for moving data “between clouds”.

VMware’s talk of becoming a platform provider is at least technically viable.
But while the company’s financial performance is sturdy – revenues grew 25% to $515 million in its most recent financial quarter – a more pressing question is perhaps whether the company can gear up fast enough to meet the wider challenge.

Maritz, who was drawn in after the sudden departure of VMware founder Diane Greene last year, is a Microsoft veteran of some renown, having overseen the technical development of the Windows NT server and workstation operating system during the 1990s.

Since coming to the helm, Maritz has imposed some organisational changes that befit the company’s growing size, he says, such as appointing MDs to run each geographical region (US, EMEA and Asia-Pacific – all now helmed by ex-IBM executives).

But it is the company’s research and development capacity that makes its platform ambitions legitimate, Maritz argues. “We have 2,000 researchers working on our server products,” he says. “That’s more than I used to develop any release of Windows in the 1990s. We are operating at the scale of a major operating system.”

VMware also argues that its relative neutrality to, for example, hardware or applications makes it the strongest candidate to become a primary cloud platform provider. “There is no ambiguity about the fact that we are an enabler [for hosting providers seeking to offer cloud computing services], not a competitor,” says Danny Chu, VP for emerging markets.

On the face of it, VMware is ramping up its ambitions dramatically. Another view, however, is that this self-elevation to the status of platform provider for the cloud era is a way of maintaining the industry excitement associated with its pioneering of x86 server virtualisation, but which now, inevitably, is beginning to cool.

The test will be whether VMware’s particular view of cloud computing strikes a chord with businesses on the ground.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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