If the data center is the new computer, then the job of providing the de facto operating system of that new computer is up for grabs, as was made clear this week at VMware’s industry conference, VMworld — a vendor event-turned-virtualization trade show. VMware has had its eye on that prize for some time, but more recently, so has Microsoft.
The show in San Francisco this week highlighted the fact that virtualization is about more than just hypervisors, which have become commodities. It also revealed the extent to which both VMware and Microsoft are hoping virtualization becomes less about maxing out each server and more about delivering applications to employee desktops and through remote terminals with less complexity and lower overhead.
Not everyone thinks virtualization is a key component of a cloud or of operating a data center as a computer, but the fact of the matter is that virtualization is impacting all aspects of the technology industry. For while the act of separating the operating system from the hardware has resulted in a more flexible style of computing, it’s also created a host of problems when it comes to everything from networking multiple virtual machines to each other and hooking them back into a storage network, to managing virtualized machines with software designed to track physical assets — even figuring out a licensing model for software that’s sold on a per-server basis. VMware may have set this ball in motion, but it’s not alone in trying to figure out how to help companies tackle these issues.
This week it launched vCenter, which adds management capability to a product VMware released in April for creating and linking computing clouds, called vSphere 4. Together they lay a foundation on which a company can install VMware’s hypervisors on servers and then provision, manage and configure those virtualized machines using software rather than a person, who would have to physically make contact with each machine. As technologies such as virtualized I/O proliferate, the number of people having to physically interact with machines continues to decline.
In another example, VMware has partnered with Cisco, which has built a line of servers that manages the networking in conjunction with VMware’s management software. Which essentially means that a cloud built using Cisco’s servers is going to have VMware as the default operating system.
Despite worries about vendor lock-in, and the presence of Citrix Xen as an open source alternative, the IT world seems staunchly behind VMware’s plans. Terremark and Savvis both introduced private clouds based on VMware’s software this week, and are pitching them as a secure and reliable way to help enterprise customers handle their IT. Both use VMware’s software to sit between the customer’s IT staff and the complex computing cloud the customer is trying to manage. Just like an operating system.
Those partnerships, and the fact that VMware has 80 percent of the market for virtualized machines, has Microsoft struggling to catch up. It was late getting a hypervisor out, but has packaged it with its Windows Server, which means that smaller companies can virtualize their servers for a lot less than the cost of a VMware set-up. Microsoft is touting its virtualization wins in the enterprise space as well.
In part to help counter the Microsoft threat, VMware last month agreed to buy open-source software development tool maker SpringSource. The move was not just to help VMware create a cloud, but to help it control the way enterprise applications would be built in the future –- on VMware’s products. The vision is to one day deliver applications that are aware of the virtualization layer and can ask those virtualized resources to deliver to a specific application the most efficient infrastructure and most appropriate quality of service. Much like the operating system acts as an interface between the computer hardware and any application, several layers of virtualization will tie the three main components of the data center together so corporate IT and application developers won’t have to allocate those resources on their own.
If the data center is a computer, that means IT staff don’t have to configure it in different ways to run each type of application — the virtualization layers will take care of bringing the resources online, with the appropriate levels of service, when the app is running. Much like the fight years ago between Microsoft’s .Net platform and Sun’s Java framework (or even the browser wars), the fight here is about getting control of those virtualization layers. And VMware and Microsoft are already duking it out.