The VMworld ecosystem: Avatar's Pandora or Total Recall's Mars?

Here at VMworld Europe in Barcelona the term ecosystem is being thrown around with gay abandon. It’s a lovely-sounding word. It evokes life, the planet, lush green rainforests, myriad plants and animals living in harmony etc etc.

IT vendors like to use it for those reasons and all its positive associations.

VMware is particularly keen on it, and it seems most apt. The layers of virtualisation they have laid onto physical servers are now being joined by levels of abstraction above the networks and storage infrastructures and into those hypervisor(s) they are gathering the intelligence to run nearly all aspects of the datacentre via ever fewer screens.

But stop for a second to think about what it means to step outside your ecosystem. Or alternatively, think about the movie Total Recall where the governor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen, exercised his power through a total monopoly on breathable air.

Now, of course I’m not likening VMware’s gathering of datacentre functionality to Cohaagen’s tyranny, but look what happened when Cohaagen got sucked out of the safety of his ecosystem and onto the Martian surface.

Obviously this won’t happen to you just because you deploy VMware in your datacentre, but there are good reasons to think deeply about what you’re getting into.

Not least with storage, probably the area most affected by virtualisation. It accounts for something north of 50% of datacentre hardware costs and Gartner has predicted those rise by 600% upon virtualising your infrastructure. That’s because packing lots of virtual servers into relatively few physical devices makes direct-attached storage unsuited to the massive and random I/O demands, and almost always means an upgrade to shared storage SAN or NAS arrays.

The day-to-day consequences of this are that storage will become more difficult to manage – masked by the VMware ecosystem – as it fills up more quickly, requires more rapid provisioning and generates ever more complex and potentially rapidly changing and easily broken dependencies and access profiles. And that’s before we get to replication, mirroring, backup etc, all of which also presents a massively complex and dependency-heavy payload on the VM infrastructure.

All of which goes to show there’s a downside to the concept of an ecosystem. VMware et al like to portray themselves as the Na’vi in Avatar, as guardians of their idyllic world. But the reality can end up more like Total Recall, where breathing the air is costly but stepping outside is even more difficult and dangerous.

For that reason it pays to exercise due diligence over the consequences of datacentre virtualisation, the likely costs and knock-on effects into storage and backup and to be sure to you have surveyed all the alternatives available in the market.