In-Depth

Addressing the State of VMware's Union

Breaking down virtualization's most powerful company, category by category, and assessing its competition.

VMware Inc. continues to rule the industry. It has a strong or dominant position in a number of market segments, including virtual machine (VM) software, access virtualization, application virtualization, storage virtualization, network virtualization, management of virtualized environments and security for virtualized environments.

That domination isn't assured into the future, though. It faces new threats and challenges from all sides. Understanding that it needed to insert its technology into more and more layers of a given workload, the company has branched out into application development frameworks, cloud computing, and, more recently, OSes and OS virtualization and partitioning technology (Docker). Before diving too deeply into all of the many competitive battles the company currently faces, let's step back a bit to see where it all started.

VMware started its journey in 1998 by working on VM software for industry standard, x86-based desktops and servers. The goal was isolating workloads and allowing multiple virtual images (virtual clients or servers) to execute on a single host system.

The company's name was intended to pay homage to VM/CMS, a virtual environment created by IBM Corp. in 1972 for its System/370. This software evolved over time to support the IBM System/­390, zSeries and System Z mainframe systems. VM/CMS in heavy use worldwide even today.

Now, VMware competes with quite a number of suppliers of virtualization technology. Citrix, Microsoft, Red Hat and SUSE offer complete suites of technology that execute on the same type of hardware. Microsoft also provides a complete array of client- and server-centric applications, making its virtualization technology quite desirable due to its high level of integration into those applications and its management and development tools.

VMware has largely been able to stay ahead of those competitors in revenues and market position by careful use of marketing, pricing, and terms and conditions. While not the leader in every segment, overall the company has successfully kept in front of the pack.

The Vision Thing
VMware's founders appear to have had a vision in which the company would lead the charge to create completely virtualized environments on industry standard systems: environments that would effectively compete with and offer the same features found in mainframe and midrange Unix environments for decades, but at a lower initial cost.

To achieve this goal, VMware would have to build, buy or partner with other suppliers to address every segment in virtualization. It has taken quite some time, and VMware now has offerings in every segment; but not, however, in every segment submarket.

Once the basic virtualization technology was in place, the industry wanted to make it possible for virtualized resources to be easily monitored and managed programmatically. Once this type of automation was in place, the "software-defined" catchphrase started to appear in press releases. Vendors pointed out that automation of these resources could result in more business agility; better workload performance and reliability; and reduced hardware, software and staff-related costs.

VMware's take on this is to present its technology under the banner of the software-defined datacenter (SDDC), even though the company only offers virtualization technology on industry-standard, x86-based systems.

This means that the company doesn't address similar needs found in parts of major datacenters. What's missing? Here's a partial list:

  • Tools for mainframes or midrange Unix systems
  • Tools for network virtualization
  • Storage virtualization tools supporting all storage devices and approaches
  • Monitoring and management of all virtualized environments
  • Security for all virtual environments

VMware does, however, offer tools that support its own take on virtualized environments; and, generally, its customers appear to be pleased.

Let's take a peek at each of the virtualization segments and see what, and how, VMware is doing.

Desktop Virtualization
Desktop virtualization is a set of tools and approaches that separates display of, and access to, desktop systems and applications remotely. Traditionally, this includes some combination of virtualization technology, including access virtualization, application virtualization, processing virtualization and management of those environments.

VMware offers a number of products that address this type of environment, including Horizon 6 (which provides access to virtual applications and desktops), Horizon Flex (a package of tools and virtualization products designed to address BYOD environments that include PCs and Macs), ThinApp (an application virtualization and delivery tool), and a number of tools to monitor and manage these environments.

VMware is facing competition from Citrix Systems Inc., Microsoft and a number of smaller suppliers in this market segment. It wins when VMware server virtualization products are the standard. If others control the server environment, VMware doesn't automatically win. If an enterprise has standardized on Windows as its preferred client for its critical applications, for example, Microsoft has an edge because it often owns the applications and OS. Citrix has an edge when enterprises would like to deploy "supplier-neutral" tools rather than relying on Microsoft for everything.

Although the company continues to enhance and extend Horizon, it appears that in the end, it would like to see competitors, such as Microsoft and Citrix, lose traction in the market. While VMware is a partner with both of these companies on some levels, it would prefer to minimize their impact, because these companies offer competing virtualization and computing environments. VMware appears to be working hard toward this goal by offering tools to make smartphones and tablets just as valuable as PCs in an enterprise-computing environment.

So while the company is working it easier and more powerful, it's also now offering its own OS (Project Photon) and development framework (EVO:RAIL) to make its approach to computing more integrated and easier to use.

Application Virtualization
With the exception of desktop applications, VMware relies on others, such as AppZero, Citrix and Microsoft, to encapsulate applications so that they can be made to execute on newer OSes. VMware would rather see enterprises deploy a complete instance of an older OS, such as Windows Server 2003, and execute older applications, such as SQL Server 2003, rather than offer a tool that allows SQL Server 2003 to happily reside on Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2012 or something newer.

Rather than offering a separate application virtualization product, VMware chooses to focus on the use of Fusion on the client and ESX, ESXi and vSphere on the server to address the need for workload isolation, or make workloads designed for one OS version work in an environment based upon another. While it's true that the VM-based approach can offer similar capabilities, it's at the cost of the need for more processing power, memory, storage and software licenses.

That's why application virtualization suppliers such as AppZero, Citrix and Microsoft find their way into enterprise environments: An application virtualization approach offers workload isolation at a lower overall cost, and without the need for extra OS, database or other licenses.

Processing Virtualization
Although VMware is known for equating VM software to virtualization itself, analysts know that it's only one submarket of the virtual processing market; and virtual processing is itself a submarket of the entire virtualization market. Over time, VMware has begun expanding its capabilities to address the business requirements of these other segments.

VMware has addressed the market for clustering software and single-system image clustering software with vSphere and vMotion. Its approach means that applications no longer need to be developed to use the APIs of clustering products to obtain the increased reliability, performance and availability those products offered. By doing this, suppliers of more traditional clustering and single-system image clustering software products have seen their revenues and market influence decline.

VMware attacked the workload manager software market in the same way. It added workload analysis and management to vSphere, allowing applications to live in an optimized envi­ronment without also requiring those applications to be written to use the workload manager API. As with clustering products, VMware's approach has had a strong negative impact on the revenues and influence suppliers of this type of virtual processing software.

VMware has recently expanded its technology portfolio to provide products to offer capabilities that have traditionally been addressed by the OS virtualization and partition sub-segment of the virtual processing software market. A striking example is the incorporation of Docker technology in two recently announced projects: AppCatalyst and Project Bonneville.

Network Virtualization
Virtual servers living either on a single physical host or cluster of hosts use network bandwidth and infrastructure differently than if those workloads resided on their own physical machines. Typically, their use of the infrastructure is more "bursty" and requires lower latency; that is, the network needs to respond quickly or workload performance will suffer.

Placing those virtual processing environments into your own virtual networking environment can contain the impact that activity has on available network infrastructure, making the infrastructure more manageable. It can also improve levels of network security.

VMware's solution is NSX, which is intended to pull network virtualization and related security capabilities into its vision of the SDDC. The company appears to have two goals: one is making its environment more comprehensive and tightly integrated. The other is capturing revenue and account control opportunities from other competitors.

Account control is built on the use of proprietary features or access mechanisms; it's a way to lock in one vendor's products. Once an enterprise uses the product, it can be terribly difficult to switch to a competing one. It's designed to facilitate and improve VMware-based computing, and discourages creating and managing virtualized networks for non-VMware workloads.

Cisco, Juniper Networks Inc., and other suppliers of networking and network virtualization technology win either when other, non-VMware virtualization technology is in use, or when enterprises would rather use general-purpose tools than VMware-specific tools to create their virtual network environments.

Storage Virtualization
As with network virtualization, virtual servers living either on a single physical host or cluster of hosts use storage differently than they do when those workloads reside on their own physical machines. Also similar with network virtualization, their use of the infrastructure is more "bursty" and requires lower latency.

With Virtual SAN, Virtual Volumes and its own VMware filesystem, VMware has integrated numerous storage virtualization technologies with vSphere. The goal is improving virtual server performance and storage utilization to reduce overall system cost. It's hoping to create the ideal computing environment for virtual systems.

What it doesn't address is storage virtualization outside the VMware environment. Suppliers such as HDS, NetApp, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and a host of others have taken this as an opportunity to use VMware's penetration into the enterprise datacenter as a way to push their storage virtualization solutions.

Monitoring and Management
VMware has numerous tools to monitor and manage envi­ronments across its range of products. vCenter offers operations management and VM monitoring, while vRealize is designed to offer "intelligent operations from applications to storage," and provide an analytical view of the environment. It also offers management tools to monitor and manage virtual storage, network virtualization and virtual client environments. As with other areas we've considered, VMware hasn't created general-purpose tools for monitoring and management; instead, it's developed these tools largely to bolster its footprint within customer networks.

An amazing ecosystem of suppliers has appeared to both fill in missing pieces of the VMware monitoring and management world, and to bring VMware-based virtual environments into the monitoring and management world created by others. Suppliers such as BMC Software Inc., CA, HP, IBM and a host of others follow VMware around to pick off areas of both monitoring and management not yet addressed by VMware.

They also go further, providing complete monitoring and management environments that address the requirements of mainframe, midrange Unix, standalone Windows and Linux, as well as virtual computing environments based on tools offered by VMware and other suppliers.

Security
VMware's approach to security is much like its approach to monitoring and management, in that its products and technology are designed to support a VMware-centric environment:

  • Security tools are built into NSX to create a more secure networking environment for virtual workloads.
  • vSphere includes security tools to control access to VMs to prevent malicious access to VM controls.
  • Virtual SAN includes tools to control access to data.

Enterprises that have built a large portion of their infrastructure using VMware's virtualization technology often adopt those tools. Others, having broader needs, acquire security tools from other suppliers.

Adding an OS
VMware clearly wants to own a larger percentage of the enterprise infrastructure -- witness recently announced projects into areas of computing typically done by its friends. Project Photon, for instance, is VMware's own Linux distribution. This means that enterprises can create virtual environments without a third-party OS. Lightwave, for another, adds VMware's take on Docker containers and security.

The company clearly is hoping that these projects will help it displace some Windows software from Microsoft and Linux software from Red Hat Inc., SUSE, Ubuntu, Debian and others when organizations deploy virtual computing environments

It's not yet clear how enterprises or VMware's frenemies Microsoft, Red Hat, SUSE and others will respond to this intrusion on their turf.

Adding Application Development
When it comes to application development, VMware appears to have paid close attention to how Microsoft built its Windows ecosystem. I've written about that elsewhere, and this is the relevant snippet:

"In that playbook, Microsoft offered proprietary development tools, runtime environments, file formats and communications protocols that, on the surface, appeared to be designed to make life easier for developers and administrators. After all, developers love an environment that takes care of import­ant details and makes moving from coding to testing to production simple.

"What wasn't clear from the surface view was that this approach also caused developers to be comfortable with a development environment that removed choice. Once they were hooked by the ease of use and product integration, all their development efforts became Windows-centric. It became a chore to move applications to any other runtime environment. This, combined with other tactics in the Microsoft playbook, caused other runtime environments such as Unix and mainframes to experience a decline."

In the attempt to take that tactic and apply it in its own virtual environment, VMware has acquired development environments such as Webmaker and SpringSource to help developers create Web-based applications easier in a VMware-­based computing environment.

Although a bit of a stretch, we could even mention EVO:RAIL, the hyper-converged infrastructure appliance, here. It clearly is a way to capture enterprise development projects and convince customers to move to VMware's computing environment.

Reaching into the Cloud
VMware, along with nearly every major hardware, software and services supplier, knows that cloud computing is emerging as a major form of enterprise computing.

Its approach to cloud computing is to have a solution for any type of cloud scenario, whether public, private or hybrid. This is why vSphere is offered in several different forms. Enterprises can build on-premises environments based on the VMware vCloud Suite. If the enterprise wishes to move some or all of its workload processing off-premises, VMware offers a cloud computing service based on vSphere and vCloud Air. It also has built an ecosystem of partners that are offering the same technology through its vCloud Air Network.

The goal, it appears, is making VMware's technology available and desirable for on-premises use in enterprise datacenters, hybrids of on- and off-premises datacenters, or entirely in VMware or partners' datacenters. VMware would point out VMware-centric cloud environments will offer enterprises the scalability, agility, manageability and cost controls of cloud computing. This approach also makes sure that VMware won't lose account control to other suppliers.

Other suppliers are offering cloud-computing services using different frameworks. Some examples are Amazon Web Services Inc., Microsoft Azure, OpenStack, CloudStack, Oracle Corp., IBM, HP.

Amazon is the leading player here. VMware is doing its best to convince enterprises to use its technology as they move workloads out of their own datacenters into those of the services providers.

Mobile Devices and Mobile Device Management
VMware is encouraging enterprises to move into mobile computing environments with its Workspace Suite. In the company's words: "VMware Workspace Suite includes Horizon desktop virtualization, Identity Manager, Horizon FLEX and AirWatch enterprise mobility management. VMware Workspace Suite combines application, device and data management with centralized identity management and policy enforcement to empower anytime, anywhere workers, transform workflows and simplify IT management."

It appears the company has chosen to address this market for a number of reasons, including:

  • End users and staff are increasingly accessing enterprise applications from smartphones and tablets.
  • This type of access creates both management and security challenges for IT administrators.
  • It offers an opportunity for VMware to displace some PC deployments with its own brand of technology.

As with other VMware projects, the technology is designed to support a VMware-centric environment.

Competitors such as Citrix and Microsoft offer similar capabilities that support their vision of mobility.

Citrix supports multiple client environments including Windows, OS X, iOS and Android through Citrix Receiver. I've seen staff accessing applications in a Citrix virtual or cloud environment from a smartphone in the morning, move to a PC or Mac during the business day, then to a tablet in the evening without problems.

Microsoft works with VMware in joint customer environments, but when it can, it pushes its own Hyper-V, App-V and Azure to create single-vendor computing environments.

Full Spectrum Coverage
VMware has built a complete computing infrastructure based on its technology. It now offers an OS (Photon), OS virtualization and partition technology, and entries in a number of virtualization categories:

  • Access virtualization
  • Application virtualization
  • Processing virtualization
  • Network virtualization
  • Storage virtualization
  • Management of virtual environments
  • Security for virtualized environments

It's also begun to create development and application execution environments built totally on its own technology.

Fierce Competition
VMware faces fierce competition in each of those individual markets, and is trying to beat the competition by offering a better-integrated, easier-to-install and -use computing environment. Despite those advantages, it's no slam dunk that its customers are ready or willing to bet their entire future on a relationship with VMware.

In the past, customers have demonstrated that while they like the ease of installation, updating and management they get when using a single supplier, they don't like having a single supplier having that much influence over what they do. They prefer to play suppliers against one another to obtain better pricing, better terms and conditions, and even to influence suppliers to add features and functions they need.

Competitors such as Citrix, HP, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, SUSE and quite a few others believe that they offer advantages such as longer and deeper enterprise experience, more flexibility, more innovation, less restrictive licensing terms and conditions, and lower overall costs.

Maintaining Control
It's an exciting time in the virtualization and cloud computing markets. VMware has made some bold moves. Its competitors are responding in kind. Who will win isn't at all clear. What is clear is that the show is going to be fun to watch. I suspect many enterprises, wishing to maintain control over their own computing infrastructures, will continue to deploy multi-vendor environments, regardless of what VMware offers.

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