VMware Ready to Challenge Microsoft With SpringSource, Cloud Foundry

[qi:gigaom_icon_cloud-computing] VMware (s vmw) has finally joined Microsoft (s msft), IBM (s ibm) and Oracle (s orcl) as one of the four horsemen in the market for platforms for building, running and managing corporate and cloud applications. With its SpringSource acquisition, VMware can now compete with specialized platform-as-a-service offerings like Microsoft’s Azure. In addition, SpringSource’s introduction of Cloud Foundry yesterday makes a crucial connection between deploying Spring-based and other Java applications in the enterprise and the cloud while giving developers an increased ability to manage their applications in a self-service mode.

Before the SpringSource acquisition, VMware faced potentially diminishing returns by putting a layer that manages virtualization on ever more of the enterprise infrastructure. That layer, which VMware pioneered and dominated, cracked open Microsoft’s control of the hardware by sliding a hypervisor underneath the operating system.

Check out our latest GigaOM Pro report, “What VMware’s SpringSource Acquisition Means for Microsoft” (subscription required).

But the other role of an operating system, and the source of Microsoft’s continuing control over the market, comes from the company’s ownership of application platforms and developer tools. With SpringSource, VMware controls the application framework used by 2 million Java developers and half of all enterprise Java projects. In a research note we wrote over at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), we discuss how both VMware and Microsoft have the pieces to pursue the industry’s shared vision.

The idea behind the shared vision is to offer a single, integrated platform as a service (PaaS) by which the applications have several new layers of intelligence where all the pieces fit together more intelligently. The integration makes it possible for developers to tell administrators what their performance, availability and security needs are in the design of the application itself. It also makes it possible for developers or administrators to push a button to deploy and manage the system on an internal or external cloud with these “set and forget” instructions.

Handicapping the race

VMware now looks to be ahead of Microsoft technically for several reasons. Microsoft’s Azure is still in Community Technology Preview and will likely stay there until late fall. In addition, Microsoft web applications, those developed in Microsoft’s ASP.NET in particular, require modification before they can work in Azure. And most importantly, Redmond’s original design goal for Azure was to use cloud scalability rather than ensure enterprise compatibility. To be fair, Microsoft has the largest developer community and will be able to move a great many of them to its Azure-based PaaS platform as it makes it more compatible with its enterprise products.

IBM and Oracle serve the other half of the Java community with JEE application frameworks and servers. They’re in similar positions, but JEE has been losing ground in custom and web applications to simpler substitutes like Spring. Packaged enterprise applications, however, are still JEE-centric and will likely remain that way. IBM and Oracle so far have not offered a clear path to the cloud from applications developed for their JEE servers. To move to the cloud, developers need to know how to manage applications. Even though Oracle’s Weblogic server runs on Amazon, someone needs to deploy the application to the new environment and manage the Amazon platform. IBM made some confusing announcements several weeks ago, saying the container that deploys the application, in the form of a virtual appliance, is incompatible between the enterprise and the cloud. And one side runs VMware and the other runs Xen. For IBM customers working with Amazon, however, Big Blue’s strategy is more like Oracle’s.

Recalibrating PaaS as a market

PaaS got a big readjustment with VMware’s SpringSource acquisition and Cloud Foundry introduction because the moves highlight a new view of PaaS as mainstream. Before, most PaaS offerings were tied to SaaS applications or proprietary platforms. Salesforce.com positioned Force.com as a general-purpose application platform, even though it had its own security, workflow, look and feel, programming language, pricing model, and regulatory choices. Google’s AppEngine, on the other hand, was designed so developers could exploit the benefits of building applications that run on a practically infinite number of inexpensive machines. Existing enterprise developers are trained in building applications that scale up on a much smaller number of big machines, a very different skill set from what Google’s offering required. In the future, PaaS is likely to have two mainstream approaches:

  1. Corporate and ISV developers will leverage the PaaS offerings of SaaS vendors like Workday or Salesforce.com. But the attraction will be to integrate these systems with complementary or legacy systems, like recruiting for HR. Standalone applications, like Coda’s financials on Force.com, are unlikely to be common on these platforms because vendors would be tying their business and technology future to one vendor with too little benefit to show for it.
  2. PaaS offerings from service providers based on VMware/SpringSource, Oracle and IBM (which surely will run on VMware in some cloud scenarios), and Microsoft’s Azure are going to look far more like seamless extensions of enterprise deployments. These will be the mainstream platforms for new, “greenfield” applications. The SpringSource acquisition and Cloud Foundry sure shine a strong spotlight on this direction.

George Gilbert is partner and co-founder of TechAlpha, a strategy consulting firm to the technology industry. Juergen Urbanski is managing director of TechAlpha.