AWS-VMware hybrid - a convenient on-ramp to native cloud for many enterprises

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko October 17, 2016
Weighing the benefits of running VMWare on AWS. It's not as clear cut as we'd like.

data center
In one of the worst-kept tech secrets this year, Amazon and VMware announced an agreement in which the latter will use AWS to provide infrastructure for managed VMware environments that are fully compatible with enterprise installations of its virtualization software suite.

VMware Cloud on AWS will be "delivered, sold, and supported by VMware as an on-demand, elastically scalable service" running on dedicated, bare metal AWS infrastructure and include all the major pieces of VMware's self-styled software-defined data center (SDDC).

Although the implementation doesn't use native AWS services like EC2, EBS or S3, running in proximity to the AWS systems providing its own services will provide VMware users convenient, high-performance access to the AWS portfolio. In essence, VMware is using AWS like so many other SaaS, PaaS and online businesses such as Netflix to provide infrastructure for their products. Unlike other AWS customers save the CIA, VMware gets preferential treatment with access to Amazon's raw infrastructure, not abstracted services.

What we know

As an AWS blog on the announcement notes (emphasis added),

This new offering is a native, fully managed VMware environment on the AWS Cloud that can be accessed on an hourly, on-demand basis or in subscription form. It includes the same core VMware technologies that customers run in their data centers today including vSphere Hypervisor (ESXi), Virtual SAN (vSAN), and the NSX network virtualization platform and is designed to provide a clean, seamless experience.

VMware Cloud on AWS runs directly on the physical hardware, while still taking advantage of a host of network and hardware features designed to support our security-first design model. This allows VMware to run their virtualization stack on AWS infrastructure without having to use nested virtualization.

The announcement was sparse on details and given AWS's secrecy around the hardware used for its existing services, this tidbit from the press release is about all we're likely to know, at least until AWS opens the kimono: "It will run on next-generation, elastic, bare metal AWS infrastructure." Translated, AWS is selling VMware raw, rack-scale servers, storage and networking, wrapped in management software that provides workload automation, scalability and redundancy similar to that of its IaaS products.

According to a VMware consultant, Frank Denneman, who has worked with pre-release versions of the product (emphasis added),

This is a fully managed service. That is to say, VMware will install, manage and maintain the underlying ESXi, VSAN, vCenter and NSX infrastructure. Routine operations like patching or hardware failure remediation will be taken care of by VMware as part of the service. Customers will have delegated permissions to things like vCenter and will be able to use vCenter to perform administrative tasks but there will be some actions like patching which VMware will provide to you as part of the service. This means that VMware takes care of the core infrastructure in partnership with AWS.

For customers, the new service is like using hosted Exchange or Oracle except that the service provides core virtualized infrastructure, not a single application.

Customers will have dedicated VMware environments that can include its full suite of products. Like other managed services, the provider, VMware in this case, handles most of the mundane, but important tasks like patching, server provisioning, hardware monitoring and break/fix.

Since the service runs native vCenter software, customers can use vMotion to live migrate VMs, application bundles or their entire VMware infrastructure to the cloud. However, once there, another form of migration is also facilitated by running within the friendly confines of AWS. As the AWS blog points out,

You’ll also be able to take advantage of AWS migration tools such as AWS Database Migration Service, AWS Import/Export Snowball, and AWS Storage Gateway.

Better still, for AWS, as its blog reminds readers, "When you are ready to modernize, you can take advantage of unique and powerful features…" like its MySQL database, Aurora, and other services. The ease of application migration and access to native AWS services is the key to understanding Amazon's large enterprise business strategy of creating a slippery slope to native cloud usage.

What we don't know and my take

Last week's announcement was like seeing a concept car at an auto show: it offered a glimpse of a compelling future product with none of the specifics buyers will need to understand before signing up.

There was nothing about pricing, pricing models, data center locations, geographic service availability, release date, system, storage and networking options or system provisioning. The most tantalizing morsel from Denneman's post is the prospect of the ability to dynamically scale VMware instances from the AWS resource pool, presumably using AWS automation software repurposed for the bare metal VMware environment.

The obvious rationale for the agreement is the need by both AWS and VMware to have a viable hybrid cloud product and an answer for their respective customers wanting to bridge private data centers and public cloud services. As such, the combination is a marriage of convenience to counter Microsoft's tightly unified hybrid cloud story.

It's very unclear how the service will work and the type of organizations it will appeal to since AWS and VMware use radically different application and infrastructure models.

AWS is based on abstract services that render the underlying hardware irrelevant to the consumer. In contrast, VMware is the natural extension of client-server applications in which an application has almost full control over its (now virtualized) hardware and where the abstractions match pre-existing constructs of discrete server OSs, storage volumes and network interfaces. The disconnect between the two methods of application design and implementation reminded me of Tim Cook's quip about tablet PCs: that you can converge a refrigerator and a toaster, but it won't be too useful. However, like hybrid devices, this service can serve as a bridge between radically different usage paradigms.

With time to review and reflect upon the sparse details, I think the AWS-VMware effort makes sense for both, but over different time frames. We all know that Amazon plays for the long run: think drone delivery, the massive build out of distribution centers, its own air cargo fleet and AWS itself. In contrast, VMware is faced with being disrupted by cloud services from its perch as the dominant player in enterprise data centers. AWS wants to capture that enterprise business and VMware needs to protect it.

With this SaaS-like service, VMware can offer its customers a viable, compelling hybrid cloud strategy that uses the most popular public cloud service to power the dominant enterprise virtualization platform. It also gives VMware customers more convenient access to the most popular public cloud service and should simplify the both the migration of workloads to AWS and the creation of true hybrid applications that span both environments.

Amazon gets ready access to enterprises wanting to get out of the infrastructure operations business and that are amenable to using public cloud infrastructure to run critical systems. Once these organizations are operating on shared infrastructure, it's easier both technically and conceptually to migrate applications to a native cloud design using standard AWS services, which is AWS's end game.

The ultimate benefits for each company depends upon your view of the future state of enterprise infrastructure and backend services. If, like VMware you believe that organizations will continue to want to keep feet in both the private and public cloud worlds, it's a strategic advantage having the most popular public cloud service as your partner which should counter customer erosion to Microsoft. If, like me, you believe that public cloud services will be the dominant computing utilities of the future, the combination gives AWS ready access to the largest base of cloud-ready enterprise customers and should accelerate their migration to public cloud services

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