VMware Goes Beyond Data Centers to Control the Cloud

VMware’s grand ambitions beyond the data center became a bit clearer today as it unveiled new products, new partnerships, including one with Verizon and two acquisitions. The company’s plans are designed to help it become not just the operating system for the data center, but also the means of assuring the flow of enterprise bits between data centers — what many would actually define as the cloud.

CEO Paul Maritz, laid out the company’s views on the changing nature of IT and the new data center stack in a speech this morning at the VMworld trade show in San Francisco, Calif. He was followed by CTO Steve Herrod, who announced the acquisitions of Integrien, an IT performance analytics company, and TriCipher, a company that helps track identity and security across multiple clouds and software-as-a-service products. Herrod also announced the latest entry into the VMware’s product lineup, vCloud Director, which helps manage network resources across virtualized pools of servers.

Amid the bustle of news, what’s the bottom line here for VMware? After last year’s VMworld conference, I wrote that the company wanted to be the operating system for the data center and would likely also launch a platform-as-a-service strategy to compete with Microsoft’s Azure platform (that launched earlier this year). VMware did finally pull the wraps off its own platform-as-a-service product today, which is based on its acquisition of Spring Source, and hinted at during our Structure 2010 conference in June. However, it’s the operating system stuff that’s pretty interesting. Last September I wrote:

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.

Today, Maritz took that a step further, outlining how VMware wants to do more than just automate and manage the data centers; it wants to handle the connections between them. VMware spent a little more than $100 million buying Integrien to help track system performance inside the virtualized data center, but it also wants to ensure that enterprises dealing with an influx of consumer devices and information flowing to and from possible unauthorized SaaS-based applications are tracked as well. To achieve that goal, VMware bought TriCipher, and announced vCloud Director. As Maritz noted:

“We must make it cheaper to operate this [IT] infrastructure and it must span all resources in the data center… the industry must go beyond the physical infrastructure.” In discussing security he put it more clearly, “Security is no longer stuck at the physical boundaries but at the logical boundaries.”

VMware knows the cloud is nebulous in terms of where information can travel, but it also knows that enterprises are uncomfortable with the nebulous and uncontrolled flow of bits, so it’s acquiring companies and offering products that will help it create the logical boundaries in an IT atmosphere veering toward abstraction. To me, this sounds a lot like magic, and is a retread of the holy grail of IT since perhaps the dawn of networks: that corporate bits will travel securely and quickly throughout the company delivering their data to whomever needs it in the form in which they need it (without ever breaking down, and at the lowest possible cost). The whole idea of building a private cloud has brought folks closer to that goal, and now VMware is attempting to own the means of securing, automating and managing it.

The newest wrinkle in this idea is the existence of SaaS providers and consumer clouds (and devices) on which employees also want to use their corporate data. So now the enterprise bits are traveling not just within the enterprise, but outside it to SaaS provider networks and data centers, and onto users’ smartphones and unauthorized devices. TriCipher may help with some of this, but expect VMware to buy other firms helping to manage and control the flow of bits between personal and corporate devices.

As for the platforms, this addresses another key change in information technology, namely the changes in programming to make applications more scalable and responsive to real-time changes in information. Martiz cited Ruby on Rails, the Spring platform and Scala as examples of new programming frameworks and languages. Then, he tied these shifts in IT at the hardware level and at the software level together to jam a shiv in the idea of a traditional operating system. “The traditional operating system orchestrates hardware and provides abstract services,” he said, but in a virtualized environment, “the role of hardware coordination goes to the virtualization layer, and the abstract services will be provided by frameworks like Spring and Ruby.”

Those frameworks are also the links that will tie private clouds built on VMware to the public clouds offered by Google, or even SaaS products like Salesforce.com, which is why VMware needed SpringSource and its own platform. Combine that with vCloud Director to help manage the links between the cloud, and new products built on today’s acquisition of TriCipher, and enterprises will have ways to control access and track SaaS and public cloud use. It’s a compelling vision, but I don’t expect IBM to sit idly by and let its systems management business get eaten up by VMware, and it makes me wonder if BMC  now becomes an interesting acquisition target or should start making deals of its own. There’s also the entire group of webscale companies and large cloud providers like Amazon and Rackpace that are keen to disrupt the control-obsessed nature of enterprise computing with open APIs, or the OpenStack for the cloud that provide a contrast to VMware’s plans.

Related GigaOM Research (sub req’d): VMware’s Cloudy Ambitions: Can It Repeat Hypervisor Success?

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