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VMworld Barcelona - a lock-in myth debunked as cloud management moves up the layers of abstraction

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks November 8, 2019
Customers can avoid more arduous lock-in, while more abstracted development approaches will help to keep open the doors that have slammed shut in many a user’s face.


Back in August my colleague Kurt Marko raised an obvious observation in his extensive coverage of the US version of VMworld, the annual conference of VMware:

There’s obvious lock-in value of controlling an organization’s entire IT development and deployment stack.

It is a classic model that many companies have followed, whereby many of the customers that are initially so grateful for that convenient single source of what they require now end up finding it an increasingly inconvenient lock-in that can hinder their options and flexibility out into the future.

Come the European version of the conference, the opportunity arose to get VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger to address that very issue, and in particular the important question of how long the time-line between those two states might be. Having a good feel for that issue will certainly help CIOs decide the level and direction of future investments in the management and delivery of cloud services.

As Marko pointed out, VMware has the very clear objective of covering as many bases as possible when it comes to managing both the physical and logical infrastructures associated with running fully hybrid environments across multi-cloud providers at one end through to on-premise resources at the other. This week’s event in Barcelona showed that the company is now close enough to that goal to be attractive not only to existing VMware customers, but to enterprises that have never been part of that family but have a strong requirement to get into the cloud as quickly and cleanly as possible.

That is why the question of lock-in potential was begging to be asked. And Gelsinger’s answer was interesting, for he managed to move the issue of a VMware lock-in onto what he said is a greater lock-in risk for many businesses:

It is not a lock-in because it is opening up the real multi-cloud world for users, with all those platform options. And with Kubernetes we also have available the biggest up-stream anti-lock-in technology there is. Everyone is already using it.

In practice he is right. Yes, it is going to be possible for an enterprise to find itself locked into VMware, and it is a possible to imagine circumstances where some specific infrastructure or applications requirements may conspire to make such a situation inconvenient or painful in business terms.

But in practice, the Kubernetes/container movement has already created an environment where it is possible to package up an application and its associated data and move it to a more suitable platform. In future years that is likely to become the common approach, a move made without even thinking or, perhaps, not knowing it has happened.

By the same token the company’s multi-cloud pitch, which now spans all the major public cloud service providers, and a goodly selection of the smaller more specialised and regionalised players, such as IBM and Oracle clouds, that give it some form of multi-cloud presence in most corners of the world.   

It is certainly here that the most obvious lock-in for cloud users is likely to occur, and indeed is already occurring for some. It is really quite easy to sign up for long term service contracts because they seem competitively priced but lock users in to paying for inappropriate levels or type of service then finding it difficult of not impossible to break out of the contracts.

In addition, the issues of extracting data and applications at the end of a contract and the possibilities that a move to another supplier will involve some degree of re-engineering – or at least re-optimising to suit the new environment – all threaten the possibility of an additional cost burden in making such a move, adding to the possibility of remaining locked in being seen as the safest option.

They’re only projects, but...

It is scenarios such as this which have prompted VMware to push hard into the multi-cloud management marketplace. And even between the USA VMworld in August and this week’s conference in Barcelona, the company announced some more upcoming functionality to its offerings.

These are all still internal projects within VMware, though most of them have moved into beta testing mode as part of their appearance in Barcelona. One or two got their first name-checks in August. According to Colin Bannister, VP of Solutions Engineering, development projects abound in the company and as is the with such things some never get to see the light of day.

But most of the projects that got a name check at the conference are expected to make it through to the production environment in some way or other. Some will transition into products and have SKU’s of their own, most commonly as the latest version of one of the company’s existing main line offerings. Bannister hinted that some are likely to be features of next year’s VMworld conferences.

Others move in a different, and new, direction however.  These are a range of developments that are, in effect, virtual service packages that abstract away from the technology itself and will allow users to starting building services using pre-configured components.

I asked Bannister if the objective was to create a platform where applications and services could be built without regard to what they might actually run on, a bit like an abstraction layer:

You can look at it that way. It is a higher layer of abstraction. Users don’t care about what their infrastructure is, all they want is an environment on which to develop their latest, greatest idea for a new business process. So we now give them that layer of abstraction where they request something and it is there. It means they don’t need to know whether it is running on-premise, in a cloud, or whether it is hopping between the two. From a business development process point of view they don’t care, and they shouldn’t care.

The one getting most of the attention in Barcelona was Project Tanzu, which has the high-level objective of fusing together the old’ world of VMware application development and orchestration tools, such as vSphere, with the new world of Kubernetes and containers in the form of Bitnami and Pivotal.

From the users’ point of view, it is intended to abstract away the differences between the two environments so that they can keep the processes that are working well and develop onwards using the new tools, in a common, higher level environment.

An important part of this project is Tanzu Mission Control, which has just entered private beta testing. This is intended to provide the overall management control of orchestrated services such as managing configuration, policy and APIs. It is set to be the follow-on to PKS and the company claims it will be THE platform to manage services across the multi-cloud, on premise or in private clouds perhaps running on the likes of IBM or Oracle clouds, and reaching right out to the network edge.

The company sees this as a key part of a time-line providing users with increasing flexibility. Here, the virtual machine took computing from the central to the distributed, while the cloud has in practice taken it back from distributed to central. Now, the coming of service delivery right out to the network edge is taking computing back from central to distributed, but at a far higher level of performance, functionality and business value.

While Project Tanzu has a very horizontal range across all application areas, VMware is also starting to target specific market sectors that have a definable set of common requirements. One such that the company is very actively pursuing is the Telco sector, one which still tends to operate on the ’n’ year upgrade capital investment model. Many of them are now on the run up to new investment so they can use new cloud services to deliver the performance and services that will be expected by business users out at the edge. That opens up a big potential market for VMware to pitch at.

The company’s response has been the announcement of Project Maestro, which is intended to help the Telcos ‘cloud-ify’ the radio access network by providing consistency across operation, infrastructure and orchestration. This project has also added new tooling to the VMware range, with the acquisition of Uhana, which has developed a real-time deep learning engine designed to optimise carrier network operations, and Avi Networks and its multi-cloud oriented, software-defined application delivery services

Another announced at the conference and now available in beta form is Project Galleon. This is an enterprise-grade customisation engine that sits between Bitnami and any of the cloud service providers now partnered up with VMware as part of its growing multi-cloud reach. Project Pacific (already touched on earlier this year by Marko) is now in beta and, claims the company, now makes vSphere the `best place’ to run Kubernetes, offering 30% better performance.

My take

It is interesting to see how so many elements of the cloud as a subject area are moving up the levels of abstraction. Not only the subject of users being locked in to VMware’s cloud management architecture, both for infrastructure and applications has become less of a issue because the greater fear is being locked into a cloud service provider, or even locked into the way a particular application behaves or its pernickety resource or optimisation requirements.

The combination of multi-cloud operations and Kubernetes to move applications and business services between them clouds should forestall many of those problems. Indeed, Kubernetes may even overcome the lock-in threat that might remain – where it would, ideally, be good to move an application from a VMware soup-to-nuts managed environment to A.N.Other soup-to-nuts managed environment.

It does start to look, however, as though the basic ground work is now ready for businesses to start on a new phase of business development where they can really start to exploit the technology because, in a strange way, the technology is now standing aside, no longer in the way but just being helpful.

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