Is EMC's VMware virtualization juggernaut unstoppable?

VMware virtualization sidelines operating systems and supplants storage subsystem intelligence. Is EMC's VMware virtualization giant set to crush all in its path?

EMC's VMware virtualization revolution has enabled it to redefine what it means to be a data storage company and is propelling the company toward a kingpin role in the virtualised/cloud world that is affecting us all.

Pre-VMware, storage companies operated in box, providing disk and tape storage systems hooked up to servers. Likewise, once the server boundary was reached, the server supplier's concerns and influence stopped. EMC pretty much created the standalone storage drive array supplier business model.

But now EMC has broken down this boundary, and the acquisition of VMware is central to that. Because of it, EMC has consigned all other storage suppliers to a secondary role, knocked Microsoft off its server perch in a strategic sense and arguably marginalised server suppliers.

It all comes down to VMware's relationship to a server's processing hardware. To all x86 server vendors, the thing that matters now is how many virtual machines (VMs) it can run, not how well it works with an operating system.

VMware's ESX hypervisor has also marginalised operating systems into being mere application wrappers instead of the crucial piece of code presenting hardware resources to applications. ESX does that now.

 VMware is usurping functions previously carried out by arrays. What will happen to storage product differentiation through unique functionality?

EMC boss Joe Tucci was asked at the latest EMC World if he thought operating systems would diminish in scope because of this. He pointed out that operating systems provide device drivers for hardware resources but ESX now does that and the operating system driver code is therefore wasted.

VMware virtualization is also becoming the core location for resource management. Users want VMware admin staff to deal with the whole data centre through VMware and not have to manage individual servers, storage arrays or network boxes with separate management tools. The rise of VMware APIs, like vStorage, to link data centre resources to VMware testifies to this.

Yes, of course, there are other hypervisors, but VMware is the king of the virtual server street and everyone knows it.

The heart of virtually all the integrated IT stacks is VMware. It is at the centre of the Cisco and EMC stack, the NetApp and Cisco stack, the HP Matrix stack, etc. What's more, every data centre supplier of hardware or software that connects to industry-standard servers is now playing by VMware virtualization rules, with EMC and VMware having set the agenda.

There's nothing anyone else can do, unless they have their own software layer in front of the processor hardware and a solid market presence. Thus, the various Linux distributions are in danger of becoming irrelevant, with the possible exception of Red Hat because it has a hypervisor. Microsoft is twisting and turning on a rack of EMC's making, forced to develop its own hypervisor and playing catch-up in a game whose rules it cannot redefine or subvert as it has done so many times in the past.

Look at 3PAR. It realised early on that to succeed in the enterprise data centre of the future it had to play nice with VMware and play nice it does, exceedingly well. But every time it adds another development to make it a better VMware storage servant, it increases the emphasis on and strategic importance of VMware virtualization.

VMware is also gradually usurping functions previously carried out by arrays like 3PAR's InServ -- thin provisioning, for example -- and there is the distinct threat that array controller functionality sets will shrink as aspects of their responsibility shift to ESX storage functions running in servers. What will happen to storage array differentiation through unique functionality then? How soon before VMware controls replication, snapshots, space reclamation and more?

There appears to be no going back, no route for operating system suppliers to displace the hypervisor or server vendors to regain control of the hardware-software interface.

In fact, the prospect is that someone will develop an ultra-thin application wrapper for ESX and even that VMware itself will develop or encourage the development of applications that use ESX resources better than existing apps built to execute in operating system-controlled environments. Could we envisage a database built as a set of functions in virtual machines, for example?

It seems very likely that VMware could be a route for EMC and its partners to enter the application space. Pretty audacious, huh? Oracle, are you listening?


Chris Mellor is storage editor of The Register.

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