VMWare’s disruptive revolution

In 2005, Diane Greene, president and co-founder of virtualisation software company VMware, told 3,600 delegates at its annual Vmworld conference that she would see them all again next year at the same place, San Francisco’s well known Moscone centre. She was half right: she did see them again, but down the coast at the far larger Los Angeles conference centre, where some 7,000 people attended. The Moscone centre would have left 3,000 standing outside.

Conference delegate numbers aren’t the only fast growing thing about VMware, a subsidiary of storage giant EMC. At its October 2006 event, the eight year-old Palo Alto company boasted of the creation of the millionth virtual server based on its technology; signed up its 20,000th licence paying corporate customer; and watched as customers responded to the creation of its virtual application download site by pulling down 300,000 applications in the first three 3 months.

Those downloads are now running at one every minute, and VMware’s sales are up 86% year-on-year, giving it an annualised run rate of more than $600 million for 2006. All this exponential growth is “nice”, says Greene, particularly since it all stems from what she calls one “little, thin layer of software.”

That thin layer of software is the VMware hypervisor, and although it may be small – barely 100,000 lines of code –its impact on the IT industry is already big, and likely to become bigger yet.

Certainly, it is no exaggeration to say that VMware’s technology has already helped to spark a revolution in data centre economics. It’s GSX and ESX virtualisation products have enabled customers to transform the utilisation of their Intel servers, and have set off a global wave of server consolidation that is dramatically reducing the cost and complexity of data centre management.

But, this may just be the beginning. While the world has been consolidating its servers using Greene’s “thin layer of software”, her company has been adapting it to other purposes, building a suite of products that will enable customers to extend the benefits of virtualisation from the heart of their data centre, to the most remote desktop in their branch network.

Most industry watchers expect that the next generation of IT will be highly virtualised, and VMware is in the eye the storm – a company whose technologies are as attractive to other vendors as they are to end-user customers. Server makers Dell, HP, IBM, and Sun, and chip makers Intel and AMD are all close partners of VMware.

The support of these companies testifies to the central role that VMware’s technology is expected to play in tomorrow’s adaptive and autonomic service oriented infrastructure (SOI) platforms, in which virtualised system images are dynamically created and managed on demand.

“There will be no more arbitrary reasons for purchasing software.”

Diane Greene, VMware

Many other pioneering and influential companies are also exploiting or extending VMware’s “thin layer of software.” Some, like systems management vendor Opsware (whose CEO and former Netscape boss Marc Andreesen calls VMware’s technology the “Gold standard for virtualisation”), treat VMware products as powerful extensions to their on infrastructure products. Others, such as traffic management appliance maker Zeus, do something more profound – they treat VMware as a new kind of operating system.

Comparisons between the role of VMware’s hyper-visor technology and that of a conventional operating system have been made before, but at VMworld the announcement of a formal “market” for virtual appliances has made the comparison more pertinent.

A virtual appliance, say Srinivas Krishnamurti, VMware’s director of product development, “is a pre-installed and preconfigured application packaged along with an operating system in a virtual machine.” As such, virtual applications represent an innovative way of delivering applications entirely independently of its underlying resources. They may contain an operating system, such as Linux, or just selected components that “provide just enough resources to boot the virtual machine,” says Krishnamurti.

This is a significant move – it means that the operating system is no longer necessarily the key development target for independent software vendors – instead they can target VMware’s hypervisor layer, making their products instantly downloadable to any Intel platform.

The disruptive potential of her “thin layer of software” is not lost on Greene. For years, she says ‘our entire industry has been marching to the cadence of the operating system” and it is a beat that has failed to keep up with technology advances in either the underlying hardware layers, or in the application zone. Now, by using virtualisation to properly isolate software from hardware, “the operating system is becoming part of the application stack” and it is no longer the defining feature of that stack, says Green.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity for our industry to change the status quo” she says. “There will be no more arbitrary reasons for purchasing software. Virtualisation will let our customers choose software based on functionality, reliability, performance and price.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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