World War Datacentre: The VMware empire and its rivals

In the real world we’ve seen centuries of wars, largely the result of old empires fading and new contenders arising. And the world of IT show similar parallels, albeit on much reduced timescales and with much less bloodshed.

Currently the VMware empire – keen to expand and therefore cement its grip on large swathes of enterprise IT – is fighting some vigorous skirmishes, most notably with hyperconverged storage supplier Nutanix, while manoeuvres aimed at open source cloud infrastructure OpenStack have also taken place, and while it keeps an eye on the horizon for container technology supplier Docker.

VMware’s fight with Nutanix has the character of that between incumbent empire and new, upstart rival (eg, the British Empire vs Germany in the first half of the 20th century) as well as that between hegemonic empire and regional power (such as the USA and Iran in recent times).

On the one hand Nutanix is believed to be developing a hypervisor to rival VMware’s. To date Nutanix is most noted for being a supplier of converged server/storage products that marry disk capacity and server power with support for VMware, Hyper-V and KVM hypervisor formats.

VMware’s “ecosystem” is, how can we say this, rather comprehensive, and the company bets on customers adopting it from top to bottom of the datacentre and then finding it difficult to disengage. The development of alternative hypervisors by the likes of Nutanix threatens this.

At the same time VMware has developed an existential threat to Nutanix in the form of its own hyper-converged server/storage appliances, EVO:Rail, and has partnered with all the key server/storage vendors to bring that to market.

A recent major outbreak of hostilities came when Nutanix (as well as Amazon and Citrix) managed to halt a pending $1.6 billion VMware contract with the US Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD deal – involving more than two million product licences over five years – is/was something of a flagship for VMware and you can bet Nutanix et al’s protests with the US Government Accountability Office went down like breakfast at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.

Meanwhile, VMware faces another imperial-scale rival in OpenStack, the open source private cloud infrastructure. Between the two there is both a fundamental philosophical difference (proprietary vs open source) and but also some complimentarity. There is no Nazi Germany vs USSR fight to the death implicit in this conflict.

VMware provides its virtualisation hypervisor, to which is appended a rich array of features, including the ability to orchestrate the delivery of IT as a cloud. It has also added storage functionality, for example via its storage APIs that connect to third party storage vendor products and more recently via its Virtual SAN (VSAN), as well as Virtual Volumes (VVOLs) that pin performance to specific virtual machines.

OpenStack is an open source cloud environment, and doesn’t provide a virtualisation hypervisor. It does provide components including cloud orchestration, block, file and object storage, networking, security etc.

But despite the lack of core conflict it is possible to replace some VMware components with OpenStack, and this is what seems to have happened in highly publicised cases such as at PayPal, which has reportedly ditched a lot of VMware in favour of the open source cloud infrastructure.

The benefits of this type of move would be to give the customer more freedom, being able to mix and match OpenStack modules, use VMware or another hypervisor where needed, and avoid being locked into a tightly controlled VMware ecosystem.

So, for the time being, to VMware, OpenStack is a large occasionally dangerous rival, able to infiltrate and supplant its efforts to colonise datacentres. Perhaps a politico-military parallel would be the current phase of the relationship of the developed west and China, with the latter quietly making inroads into the worlds markets, African minerals etc, but with no physical showdown on the horizon (yet).

Finally, there is the as yet not quite quantifiable threat to VMware from the container technology typified by Docker, but also offered by Google and Microsoft. This is a form of virtualisation, but which does away with the hypervisor and instead allows apps to sit directly on the host operating system (OS) without the need for multiple guest OSs.

Containers address some shortcomings of hypervisors, namely their use of multiple duplicate running processes, boot volumes etc, and their use of dedicated memory and storage resources.

In the long term containers may hold a grave challenge to virtualisation hypervisors such as VMware’s, but for the time being the technology is relatively immature, and lacks, for example, key storage features – such as the ablity to share data between containers, container portability with regard to storage etc – and in terms of security.

So, for now containers/Docker is not a pressing concern to VMware, but in the long term that could develop into a deeper, existential rivalry; perhaps more like the China of 50 years in the future to the developed west.

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