VMware clambers on the container bandwagon

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko July 2, 2018
VMware’s latest gambit as it morphs into a SaaS company.

Container infrastructure has gone from a niche technology favored by tech-savvy developers and cloud services to a mainstream enterprise deployment environment with stunning speed, however, what’s even more impressive is how rapidly Kubernetes has become not only the preferred, but the de facto standard workload and cluster management system.

We first detailed the rise of Kubernetes and its vanquishing of the trailblazer of modern containers, Docker, last year, but events over the intervening months have only added to Kubernetes’ momentum. Case in point is VMware, a company whose name signifies the very technology being rapidly displaced by containers, but is in the midst of pivoting from being solely focused on VM infrastructure into a purveyor of hybrid cloud management software and services.

The company has dabbled in containers for a few years, notably with its vSphere Integrated Containers (VIC) product that allows running containers within a lightweight VM and provides tight integration with its vCenter and other management software. Perhaps it was the influence of VMware’s Pivotal Software spinout or an acknowledgment of inexorable market forces, but regardless the cause, VMware’s embrace of containers tightened last year when it, through Pivotal, partnered with Google to release a hybrid cloud container environment in the Pivotal Container Service (PKS). Last week, VMware waded deeper into the container market by announcing a managed container cloud service that sees the company extending a strategic shift from selling software to delivering SaaS.

Enter VMware Kubernetes

VMware Kubernetes Engine (VKE) is a managed container-as-a-service (CaaS) product that sits in VMware’s growing Cloud Services portfolio, joining VMware on AWS, Wavefront (monitoring and metrics), App Defense (threat detection and response) and AirWatch (mobility management). VMware positions VKE alongside its other container offerings, namely VIC which is designed for internal deployments (private cloud) and PKS which is a hybrid product that spans both private Pivotal installations and Google Container Engine (GKE).

Unlike some other cloud container offerings, VKE is a fully managed platform, that is a SaaS that is conceptually closer to the Salesforce Platform or SAP Cloud than an IaaS like AWS Elastic Container Service. As such, VMware manages the entire container stack, both the control plane, namely Kubernetes itself, and the worker nodes. Indeed, in the blog introducing VKE, Bill Shelton, VMware's VP of Product Management, accurately highlights these two levels of container service abstraction. Most cloud services like AWS ECS for Kubernetes (EKS) and Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) only operate the control plane, leaving the user to deploy and manage the compute instances that make up a container cluster. VKE ups the ante by wrapping both control and compute nodes in a service abstraction layer that is expressed via what VMware calls a Smart Cluster.


The Smart Cluster is VKE's most innovative feature, which Shelton describes as "a collection of policies that capture the desired state of a fully compliant Kubernetes cluster," and can be thought of as an abstraction layer that encapsulates dozens of configuration choices. VKE continually monitors Smart Clusters to automatically maintain compliance with defined security, cluster health and capacity policies, kicking in changes when anything gets out of line. VMware correctly perceives that existing CaaS products remain too complicated for some organizations and leaves too much work left in the hands of customers.

While abstracting the entire container stack reduces the cost of operation, VMware also says that Smart Clusters are designed to reduce resource consumption by:

  • Using container instances, like AWS Fargate and Azure ACI (see my discussion here) instead of full VMs.
  • Dynamically sizing the cluster node pool up and down based on workload.
  • Using a resource-based pricing model based on per-second usage of vCPUs and RAM.

Shelton describes the company's rationale:

We are operating under the assumption the highest ratio of customer value to cost is in the ‘abstract everything’ model and therefore have set our bar at turning the entire Kubernetes cluster into a policy-defined, dial-tone service. We don’t see this as a right or wrong decision as there are trade-offs between these different models. Have we nailed every trade-off perfectly? Absolutely not. However, we are fully committed to continuing to work this problem until customers tell us that we are hitting the sweet spot between simplicity and flexibility.

Smart Clusters let VMware encapsulate more than 50 configuration parameters for the controller, worker nodes, network and storage configuration, into a predefined cluster type that embody best practices that improve performance, security and availability. VKE initially includes two cluster types, Developer and Production, however Shelton says that there will be others that evolve as the company sees how organizations use the service and can identify different policies and configurations to meet various scenarios.

The initial release of VKE runs on AWS, likely the same infrastructure VMware uses for its VMware Cloud offering, and will be available in three AWS regions. Thus, like AWS Cloud, workloads in VKE can access native AWS services such as data stored in S3 or RDS. Shelton says that an Azure implementation is planned, but was non-committal on support for Google Cloud since there is clear overlap with the PKS on GKE hybrid that VMware hasn't figured out how to support Kubernetes as a cluster manager, but also decouple from the worker nodes.

Indeed, VKE is like a combination of AWS Fargate and EKS, or Azure ACI and AKS. While AWS is moving towards allowing Fargate instances to be incorporated into an EKS cluster, it's not yet a packaged service that's ready for production use. Google GKE is probably the most similar to VKE in that it does blur the lines between managing the Kubernetes control plane management and worker nodes, but lacks a simple abstraction layer like the Smart Cluster that fully insulates the user from most operational decisions.

The Kubernetes project documentation lists more than a dozen other cloud hosted services or turnkey products, including some, like Platform9 and Stackpoint that offer full stack multi-cloud support. Nevertheless, these remain niche products and won’t provide significant competition to VMware as it seeks to establish itself in the CaaS market by differentiating from the big-three cloud

My take

VKE is significant on several levels. On the surface, it's a compelling CaaS offering with some meaningful technical differentiation from a known and trusted company. Strategically, not only does VKE represent a commitment to an infrastructure deployment platform that is displacing VMware’s initial raison d’etre, but it furthers the company’s move towards selling cloud services. While the company's initial cloud portfolio served as a supplement to its traditional business of licensed software and support contracts, VKE along with VMware on AWS move the company squarely into the realm cloud service provider. While it's dicey reading too much into a single product announcement, I believe VKE has broader significance.

VMware’s cloud denialism, which I criticized here, and later epiphany, which I chronicled here, have put it on a path similar to Microsoft, with Azure and Office 365, and Oracle, with Oracle Cloud, that seeks bridge the old model of on-premise licensed software and the new world of on-demand managed (cloud) services. VKE is the clearest demonstration yet that the company sees the inevitability of cloud services displacing more and more enterprise infrastructure and isn’t afraid of cannibalizing its legacy business. Whether VMware proceeds aggressively, like Microsoft, or tepidly like Oracle remains an open question, however I expect the direction to be clarified by executives at VMworld in a few weeks.

Dell doing a U-turn back into the public markets in a deal that doesn’t entirely give it total control over VMware further muddies the long-term future. However, with Michael Dell professing how much he loves the company, it seems inevitable that VMware will eventually be completely absorbed and transformed into the software and services arm of Dell. With Dell itself becoming more reliant on sales to cloud builders and other service providers, the combination (even at current levels of 82 percent Dell ownership) gives VMware plenty of freedom to pursue its own cloud strategy on a track similar to Microsoft that doesn’t abandon the legacy business, but makes clear that the cloud is where the growth lies.

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