Five signs that VMware is becoming a developer platform company again

With its Docker and OpenStack love, and DevOps and mobile initiatives, is VMware under pressure to bring back developer platform capabilities?

VMware's recent moves to embrace Docker and OpenStack, add DevOps features on its hybrid cloud and bring mobile back-end capabilities to its cloud raise the question: Does VMware want to be a developer platform company all over again?

At VMworld 2014, VMware made some announcements around OpenStack and Docker that surprised the industry. It also revamped its hybrid cloud strategy -- vCloud Air -- to take on public cloud giants including Amazon and Microsoft. 

The vCloud Air service now offers object storage, DevOps, disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) and database as a service (DBaaS) features. 

Hot on the heels of its $1.5bn acquisition of AirWatch, VMware also wants to bring mobile back-end capabilities to its cloud platform. 

VMware's affinity to developers

Started as a niche virtualisation startup in the late 1990s, VMware has come a long way to become a dominant enterprise player with more than 500,000 customers, including all of the Fortune 100 companies. 

A lot of credit goes to its ex-CEO, Paul Maritz. Before joining VMware parent EMC, Maritz spent over a decade at Microsoft, leading the development efforts for Windows 95, Windows NT and Internet Explorer products. 

He then became the executive vice-president for Microsoft's platform strategy and developer group, responsible for developer evangelism and outreach efforts. Maritz laid the foundation for developer and platform evangelism, which successfully drove the adoption of .Net among developers.

Maritz's affinity to developers resulted in VMware acquiring a series of companies with platform capabilities in 2010. 

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It started with the acquisition of SpringSource, a company that created the popular Java framework called Spring. SpringSource also had other developer products in the form of Hyperic, Spring Roo, RabbitMQ and tc Server. This resulted in a product suite called vFabric that instantly transformed VMware into a developer platform company. 

The later acquisition of WaveMaker and Cetas brought additional capabilities to the company. 

During the early days of platform as a service (PaaS), VMware announced Cloud Foundry. With this, it had all the essential building blocks to deliver an end-to-end stack to the enterprises. 

The journey to enterprise IT

In 2012, Maritz moved back to EMC from VMware as chief strategist, with Pat Gelsinger taking over his CEO role at VMware. 

The change in leadership resulted in the company adopting a sharp focus on the enterprise. Gelsinger considered the developer offerings more of a distraction than value addition to customers. At that time, EMC was trying to figure out the roadmap of its GreenPlum big data platform

VMware and EMC saw the opportunity to create a new entity that consolidated its developer and big data offerings. In April 2013, Pivotal was formed as the developer platform company based on the strong foundation of vFabric, GreenPlum and Cloud Foundry. VMware got rid of other products such as WaveMaker and SlideRocket to channel its energy on enterprise IT.

By 2013, VMware had consolidated its product portfolio into three buckets:

It acquired Nicira, a software-defined networking (SDN) startup, to expand its virtualisation portfolio to networking. 

It launched vCenter Hybrid Cloud (vCHS) -- which is now vCloud Air -- that promised seamless extension of datacentre assets to the public cloud. Though VMware is yet to make a mark in the public cloud space, it has a proven track record in datacentre virtualisation. 

The acquisition of Desktone and Airwatch complemented the Horizon, Mirage and View family of products, turning VMware into a strong user computing player. This simplified messaging helped it tell a compelling story to CIOs.

Signs of a return to developer platforms

But now it seems that VMware is under pressure to bring back developer platform capabilities. Here are a few indications:

Public cloud, aka vCloud Air OnDemand

Cloud is all about application programming interfaces (APIs) -- ask Amazon if you are not convinced. Amazon Web Services (AWS) started as a set of APIs to deal with storage and compute. That's one of the reasons why Amazon's expansive cloud platform still has "web services" in its name. 

Any company that's in the business of public cloud becomes a platform company for the developers. With vCloud Air moving into a self-service based platform, it has to expose APIs to enable automation. Microsoft Azure is another example of this, as is Google Cloud Platform. 

If VMware wants to compete head-on with these players, it should have a developer story to its stack. 

DevOps as a service

DevOps definitely has developers in it. 

If VMware is offering continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD), it has to enable developers by hosting source code control and integration of various build tools. This needs to be integrated with the private and public cloud platforms. 

Mobile platforms on vCloud Air

VMware is partnering with leading enterprise MBaaS players such as Kinvey, built.io and Strongloop to bring mobile platform capabilities to vCloud Air. It is also bringing mobile application development platforms (MDAP) based on Sencha and Appcelerator to its cloud. 

Pivotal CF Mobile Services are also available on vCloud Air. This is to enable Android and iOS developers to consume services running on VMware's cloud.

Embracing OpenStack

Why is VMware welcoming OpenStack into its family? According to Gelsinger, "Developers that want to programmatically consume infrastructure through the OpenStack API can now do it using the best ingredients on earth from VMware." 

So, it's about developers!

Docker and Kubernetes

Developers love Docker. It empowers them to write once and run anywhere -- on their workstations, virtual machines or in the cloud. Kubernetes is an open-source cluster management tool for Docker from Google

Though system administrators and operations teams will use Docker, it is currently a developer platform. By integrating Kubernetes and Docker with its virtualisation stack, VMware will be close to becoming a PaaS company. The target segment for PaaS is, again, developers.

It is evident that the current market dynamics are forcing VMware to go beyond enterprise IT offerings. VMware is in a unique spot where it could differentiate itself from the competition through its integrated stack and compelling value proposition. 

But the temptation of building a developer platform based on OpenStack, Docker and vCloud Air could interfere with its ability to deliver the promise it made.

Janakiram MSV is an analyst at Gigaom Research and principal analyst at Janakiram & Associates. He is a regular contributor to Computer Weekly and can be followed on Twitter at @janakiramm.

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