VMware's vision - your multi-cloud substrate for enterprise applications

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko September 2, 2018
VMWare is shifting focus from being the master of virtualized storage to being your one-stop shop for managing complex cloud infrastructure deployment. Does it make sense?

VMWare - vision
VMWare's vision of being your one stop shop for any time, anywhere cloud infrastructure was front and center at this year's VMworld. this year's show opened with a bang by front-loading the significant news into the first day.

CEO Pat Gelsinger used his keynote to highlight the company's evolution from virtualized storage supremos into a cloud-centric provider of infrastructure, management and development software and services.

An indication of how completely VMware has embraced the cloud, including new-found partner AWS, is that aside from some perfunctory remarks about the success of its VSAN storage software, Gelsinger made no mention of the company's traditional server and storage virtualization products until the tail end of his keynote.

Even then, the new vSphere Platinum product tier Gelsinger discussed is only significant because it integrates VMware's existing AppDefense security product, not for any stunning new features.

VMware's priorities became clear when AWS CEO Andy Jassy made a return appearance as the first guest at the opening keynote. Jassy and Gelsinger revealed updates to the joint VMware Cloud on AWS service including a surprise in the form of support for AWS RDS on VMware infrastructure that indicates AWS is rethinking the value of hybrid cloud.

VMware and AWS have been busy since announcing their partnership at last year's show (see my coverage here). Make no mistake, this is no faux partnership for marketing effect. It is a true co-engineering relationship.

The degree of effort and cooperation became clear in the Q&A session when VMware COO Sanjay Poonen was repeatedly asked about VMware expanding support for its service to other clouds like Alibaba and Azure.

Poonen deflected the issue by stressing the significant engineering effort that went into the AWS release and observing that the existing offering is far from complete. "We're in the second inning of what we would like to do with AWS," Poonen said, adding that while VMware monitors and will respond to customer demand for other cloud platforms, the priority now is to enhance the AWS-based service. They did that in spades this year.

AWS cloud: from idea to implementation

The cloud partnership announced half a dozen enhancements to the VMware on AWS service, including;

  • Cost reductions in the form of a new feature and pricing promotion. The former is support for custom-sizing the core count of instances used to run software like Oracle or SQL Server that is licensed by the core. Previously, to avoid degrading performance, these might have operated on an oversized standard instance that left users paying license fees for cores they weren’t using. The price cuts come in the form of a temporary promotion offering a 3-node cluster for the price of two. Astute observers will also note that this implies that VMware has cut the minimum supported cluster size in half from six nodes to three, which expands the market to smaller enterprises that didn't need six nodes of capacity.
  • Increased storage capacity using EBS-backed (AWS Elastic Block Storage) service, with volumes sized from 15 to 35 TB in 5 TB increments, to build vSAN clusters running on new bare metal dual-core Skylake-based EC2 instances. It also beefed up data security on AWS by allowing VSAN encrypted volume to use keys managed by the AWS Key Management System (KMS), an enhancement that also illustrates how VMware users can mix native AWS services in with traditional workloads.
  • Support for VMware’s NSX virtual network over AWS Direct Connect links that allow extending network configuration and security policies from an enterprise data center to AWS. It also enhanced NSX features on the AWS Cloud to include better control over intra-cloud traffic and support for micro-segmented security policies. Support for high-speed Direct Connect links also facilitates application and data migration or busting to the cloud. Further smoothing the path to the cloud, VMware introduced what it calls a data center evacuation service that enables the live or scheduled migration of thousands of VMs with no downtime. It also offers a free cost estimation service to help determine the financial implications of cloud placement for different workloads.
  • Service expansion to AsiaPac via the AWS Sydney region.

It wasn’t surprising that Gelsinger wouldn’t quantify the service’s success in terms of the number of customers or revenue. However, he said that VMware’s cloud provider program is up to 4,200 companies with more than 150 certified through its cloud competency program and 100 validated partner solutions for things like backup, DR or VDI/thin client. There’s certainly demand for the AWS service, and while we have no idea how materially significant it is to VMware’s business, it’s clearly strategic.

Building a consistent, manageable hybrid cloud

Last year, VMware’s foray into the public cloud looked like an on-ramp to AWS for enterprises still skeptical of using shared cloud services for production workloads.

I speculated at the time that Amazon was in the better strategic position since VMware reduced the friction for such enterprises to adopt its native services. After this year’s surprise announcement of support for Amazon’s RDS database service on internal VMware infrastructure, the relationship looks more like a two-way street where AWS slowly embraces deployments on external, private infrastructure.

When available later this year, RDS on VMware Amazon RDS on VMware will support Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, PostgreSQL, MySQL, and MariaDB databases. Given audience reaction at the keynote, which got some of the loudest cheers of the keynote, RDS on VMware looks to be an instant success and could pose a long-term competitive challenge for Oracle and Microsoft, although less so for the latter given its Azure SQL service.

When the RDS product is paired with other ‘off-grid’ AWS services like Greengrass, which can run compute, data caching, machine learning inference and Lambda functions on local devices like a Dell Edge Gateway, NVIDIA Jetton, or even Raspberry Pi and the Snowball Edge that supports select EC2 instances and Lambda functions, it shows an AWS acknowledging that some workloads are best operated remotely, off the hyperscale cloud grid.

Amazon’s RDS move is also fortuitous in light of VMware’s strategy to create an enterprise cloud service backplane that can run on any IaaS, or container infrastructure since there is a small risk of it turning VMware into a multi-cloud platform that can broker workloads to a multitude of service providers, effectively treating them as substitutable commodities.

VMware also previewed a hybrid cloud service called Project Dimension that is designed to deliver a standard, centrally-managed cloud infrastructure services to enterprise data centers and remote offices.

Delivered as a VMware-managed service, Dimension will provide the familiar vSphere infrastructure stack with VSAN storage, NSX virtual networking and VeloCloud SD-WAN to private data centers, public cloud infrastructure like AWS and edge appliances, whether in a retail store, branch office, remote manufacturing or construction site.

VMware will operate the management control plane software as SaaS that includes monitoring, problem resolution, software updates and patch management. Dimension compliments, and could perhaps ultimately integrate, VMware's PKS Kubernetes service which can already deploy container clusters and associated NSX-managed virtual networks to on-premise or Google Cloud (GCP) clusters.

VMware has already extended NSX virtual networks to multiple cloud platforms, including AWS, Azure, VMware Cloud on AWS, along with on-premises Linux-based and containerized workloads running on bare-metal servers without a hypervisor. Its long-term strategy is to do the same for the rest of the infrastructure stack.

By providing a standard infrastructure foundation that can be deployed across an enterprise and potentially on other IaaS like Azure, GCP or Alibaba Cloud, Project Dimension could make VMware the standard infrastructure abstraction layer that enables workload portability across different providers.

In VMware's idealized world, differences between cloud service providers are blurred and enterprises interact with a VMware substrate, whether that's Dimension-vSphere infrastructure services or PKS container services.

My take

Outwardly, VMworld is your typical vendor conference with wall-to-wall branding, non-stop boosterism and obligatory obeisance to customers and partners, but these belie its significance.

While the pre-Labor Day event isn't exactly Burning Man for nerds, it has turned into an annual festival for the entire data center ecosystem, whether they're an admin, analyst, equipment supplier or service provider.

While most of the attendees and show floor exhibitors are preoccupied with legacy vSphere systems and associated on-premise hardware and software, VMware leadership is charting a course to a multi-cloud future which revolves around it. This is articulated as a VMware software stack and SaaS products providing the glue that knits data centers, hyperscale cloud services, and edge devices into a single, consistent, cohesive set of virtual infrastructure services.

My initial take is reflected in a question I asked Gelsinger in a post-keynote Q&A session about whether VMware, by building the intermediate software layer and controlling the customer relationship is commodifying the cloud providers and did they see it as a risk.

Gelsinger aptly pointed out that the Amazon RDS announcement turns the relationship on its head since in that case, and presumably other products to be added from the AWS portfolio, AWS owns and manages the service and customer relationship and uses VMware infrastructure as the platform. The complexity comes when that VMware platform, in turn, runs on AWS infrastructure services.

In the new model, VMware might end up being the standard virtual infrastructure that rides atop public clouds (and on-premise systems), but those same cloud service providers might, in turn, run their higher-level PaaS, database, analytics and AI services atop the VMware substrate.

It's a convoluted relationship and one I'm skeptical makes any sense, but one that provides a consistent hybrid platform for more sophisticated cloud applications and, as with RDS on VMware, gives the major cloud vendors an easy path to deployment in enterprise data centers and edge locations.

I'll be watching how this evolves over the coming year, particularly what is sure to be significant news at re:Invent and continue to share my evolving understanding of the emerging multi-cloud enterprise.

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