VMware's cloud computing vision

VMware's vision of high-availability, cloud-delivered computing threatens existing thinking on backup, data security and compliance.

VMware's high-availability, cloud computing vision is threatening existing thinking on backup, data security and compliance.

It was evident at VMworld Europe 2009 in Cannes last month that the virtualisation discussion has moved on from nitty-gritty technical details, such as the hypervisor kernel, to consideration of the overall computing model engendered by virtualisation. And if VMware's vision of the future comes to pass, much may change in the worlds of data protection and information governance.

Driving these potential changes is VMware's cloud computing vision, which it likens to a "software mainframe."

A bit of history illustrates VMware's thinking. High-availability processing was pioneered by the long-defunct Tandem Computing, whose NonStop computers twinned and shadowed every hot-swappable component, with transfer of processing between "sides" under the supervision of the Guardian NonStop Kernel (NSK) operating system.

If you substitute "VMware ESX" for "Guardian NSK" in the above paragraph, you have an almost exact description of VMware's plans for the future of a high-availability computing architecture. In this model, virtual computing resources, including CPU, storage and memory, are added and replaced on the fly, while workloads are shadowed by virtual machines (VMs) and entire data centre operations can be migrated without interruption to different physical processing locations.

From server shadowing to data centre recovery, VMware's enterprise product line aims to go one step further than any current high-availability computing approach by allowing data to follow the least-available component of the computing delivery model -- the end user.

In VMware's world, the computing workspace moves from being cloud-resident to being locally hosted on your laptop, and synchs up again when you rejoin the cloud.
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Two VMware demonstrations in Cannes showed the company's concept of "employee-owned hardware" running multiple workspace personalities.

The first was the idea of cloud-resident desktop workspaces accessed through a netbook or a standard laptop with the challenge being that at some point the user unplugs and moves to a new location. In VMware's world, the computing workspace moves from being cloud-resident to being locally hosted on your laptop, and synchs up again when you rejoin the cloud.

The second demonstration showed a hypervisor on a Nokia N800 mobile computing device with Google Android running in one partition and Windows CE in another. In the scenario, one operating system represented the "personal computing environment," while the other one denoted "the professional workspace."

Implications of VMware's vision

What are the implications of VMware's vision on storage and disaster recovery (DR) vendors? Generally speaking, while VMware is strongly focused on building an effective technology partner ecosystem, it's not hard to see that its strategy is potentially very disruptive to the current market.

Specifically, backup and high-availability product vendors should be concerned over the market longevity of their server-level, high-availability backup and recovery products.

For example, VMware's High Availability (HA) product will negate the need for a separate high-availability product at the server level, while the vendor's VMware vCenter Site Recovery Manager suite (formerly known as VMware Site Recovery Manager) provides a robust set of services for recovering a complex set of virtualised servers. In either case, VMware's ESX platform will provide monitoring and management services that coordinate the high availability and DR processes.

And what are the implications for IT practitioners? First, the concept of employee-owned hardware will cause palpitations in those responsible for data integrity, governance and security, as well as technology support. There are real compliance issues to be faced here. What, for example, will be the process for ensuring that corporate data is scrubbed from an employee-owned device should the person leave the company?

The concept of a neatly divided personal and professional workspace environment looks good in a PowerPoint presentation, and might seem a simple and basic function of virtualisation. However, it is unlikely to be achieved in practice.

That's because users in the real world will rebel at having multiple copies of the same file resident within various distinct workspaces. They will set up shared storage spaces for files they want to easily access from the multiple operating system images that VMware refers to as "workspace personalities."

How corporate security, human resources and data storage policies will apply to data in the personal workspace -- which is also accessible from the professional workspace on the same device -- is an issue that forward-thinking information management professionals need to consider now. The availability of an employee's personal workspace on the machine they are using at work will exacerbate current productivity issues. This will further stress security departments struggling with data leak prevention and the movement of corporate data into uncontrolled domains via personal email accounts and data storage areas.

VMware's vision will challenge users to implement virtualisation while addressing the overall enterprise architecture, with particular consideration given to information governance, policy and procedures. Meanwhile, industry players, including those who are already part of VMware's ecosystem, must face the challenge of being marginalised by the partner they have chosen to dance with.

Simon Perry is principal analyst at Quocirca. He attended VMworld Europe 2009, which was held at The Palais des Festivals in Cannes on 23-26 February.

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