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Does VMware's new data center signal pending cloud-computing play?

Alex Barrett
VMware Inc.. has made no secret that it's interested in providing virtual infrastructure software to cloud-computing providers, but news last week that the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has leased more than 100,000 square feet of data center space

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in eastern Washington State raises questions about whether its intentions are to become a cloud-computing provider in and of its own right.

For more on cloud computing:
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Google et al. pitch cloud computing to wary IT pros 

IBM to build 'cloud computing' data center
On July 28, the Wenatchee World online, "the fiercely independent voice of North Central Washington," reported that VMware had leased about two-thirds of 189,000 square feet of data center space being developed by Sabey Corp. of Tukwila, Wash., or about 125,000 square feet.

According to the Sabey Corp. website, VMware's facility will reside on Intergate.Columbia, a 30-acre campus served by Douglas County PUD, an energy provider that supplies cheap power that it creates with dams along the Columbia River. The data center promises to be a top-tier facility, with redundant mechanical and electrical systems, state-of-the-art control and monitoring, dedicated 24/7 security personnel, and regular inspections.

VMware will share the Intergate.Columbia facility with telecommunications giant T-Mobile. Other neighbors in the area include Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask.com and Intuit Inc.

In and of itself, the fact that a large independent software vendor (ISV) is expanding its data center space is not unusual. What is unusual is the sheer magnitude of the space VMware will lease.

A data center that's more than 100,000 square feet "is on the large side," said John Boyd, president of corporate site selection firm the Boyd Company in Princeton, N.J. By way of comparison, payroll services giant ADP's new data center in Sioux Falls, N.D., is in the 60,000-70,000-square-foot range, he said. For data centers much larger than 100,000 square feet, you have to look to companies like Google and Microsoft, whose "megatrophy data centers are in a league of their own," he said.

VMware mum on data center plans
What exactly will VMware do with its new data center space? The company was not altogether forthcoming. Spokesperson Melinda Marks told Wenachtee World that it would be used for "research and development." Dan Chu, VMware's vice president of emerging products and markets, was equally vague: "We are excited that it will be a great green facility, and we will be able to do things very efficiently," Chu said, and declined any further comment on VMware's plans.

That left VMware watchers to speculate. And speculate they did.

"Pretty large for internal or R&D use, I'd think," wrote Jonathan Eunice, a principal IT adviser at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., by email. Instead, Eunice suggested that VMware might use the data center space to compete with existing cloud-computing providers.

I think VMware is committed to being an ISV, and anything they would do [as a cloud-computing provider] would be stepping on someone else's toes.
John Humphreys,
program VP, Enterprise Platforms GroupIDC

"One of the interesting options for VMware is providing a place where VMware virtual machines [VMs] can run in an on-demand fashion," Eunice wrote. "After all, that's essentially what Amazon's EC2 'cloud' is all about. EC2 runs AMIs = Amazon Machine Images = Xen VM images. No reason that VMware can't have a datacenter that runs VMware images, or add the ability to fire off such images from VirtualCenter, ESX, and their other tools."

Indeed, many of the pieces of that puzzle are already in place, Eunice argued. "With things like the Virtual Machine Marketplace, a catalog of pre-built VMs, … VMware already has the bulk of the 'application catalog service' to front-end clouds -- either their own, or partners.'"

Certainly, VMware wouldn't be alone in its cloud-computing aspirations. "A little beyond VMware," Eunice continued, "you can see folks like Amazon (EC2), IBM (Blue Business Platform), and Etelos (Etelos Marketplace) forming their lines for future 'apps run in on a utility computing infrastructure battles.' [There's] no reason VMware could not play effectively in this space."

Cloud computing provider? Maybe not
Other VMware observers were also surprised by the size of the new VMware data center but expressed doubt that the company would become a cloud-computing provider.

On the surface, "the concept of the cloud would make a lot of sense," said John Humphreys, a program vice president of the Enterprise Platforms Group at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, especially when you consider the cloud computing background of VMware's incoming CEO Paul Maritz. But "personally, I think VMware is committed to being an ISV [independent software provider], and anything they would do [as a cloud-computing provider] would be stepping on someone else's toes."

Miles Kelly, the vice president of marketing and strategy at San Francisco-based data center operator 365 Main Inc. concurred with that analysis. "If VMware had a strategy to get into cloud computing as an actual provider, they would end up competing with most of the companies that they actually supply," he said, such as T-Systems, Terremark, British Telecom and Savvis.

As a top-tier ISV, VMware probably has a need for very significant numbers of servers on which to test its software, Kelly said. Many larger ISVs at 365 Main will lease "10-, 20- or 30,0000 square feet at once," which they use for testing purposes. "Like any enabling technology, it needs to test [its technology] on scale."

Furthermore, it's unusual for any data center tenant to use all the space it leases all at once, Kelly said. Instead, it's more likely that VMware is simply "solidifying quality data center space for what will probably be a very bright future," Kelly said.

Whatever VMware may or may not intend for its east Wenatchee campus, there's no doubt that the company has definite thoughts on how cloud computing should evolve.

"Previous versions of the cloud were very prescriptive about what you could or could not run," said VMware's Chu. Going forward, "the idea is to take real applications – not just simple one-VM apps – but multitier application stacks and instantiate them in the cloud."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director. And check out our Server Virtualization blog

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