VMware's acquisition of enterprise application development firm SpringSource yesterday laid bare its intentions to move beyond controlling access to physical hardware with virtualization and to move up the stack to applications. The shift could further usurp the role of traditional operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Red Hat Linux.
"This is extremely significant in terms of VMware Inc.'s competitive position with respect to Microsoft and Red Hat, and long term to the enterprise," said Bernd Harzog, the CEO of APM Experts, an IT consultancy. "This says that they're going to be an application platform play, not just an infrastructure play."
"I don't know if they were ever wearing gloves, but if they were, they just took them off," he added.
VMware bought SpringSource for $362 million plus $58 million in VMware stock options to retain SpringSource talent such as CEO Rod Johnson and CTO Javier Soltero. Among SpringSource's assets are the Spring Platform, a Java enterprise application development platform; the Groovy language; the Grails Web application framework; and Hyperic Inc.'s systems monitoring technology. SpringSource is also a key contributor to several open source projects including Apache Tomcat Java server. The deal is expected to close in September.Application-aware virtualization
Unlike many earlier VMware acquisitions like Dunes, Akimbi Systems Inc., B-hive, SpringSource products won't immediately reappear as VMware-branded offerings. The impact of the acquisition will be felt mainly by developers, said Andi Mann, vice president of research at Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates. Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc. estimates that 2 million Java application developers use the Spring platform.
It's those developers that have fueled the other key trend in enterprise computing besides virtualization: writing applications to a framework rather than to an operating system.
"The role of the traditional operating system is changing," said VMware CEO Paul Maritz in a conference call. "The OS no longer touches the hardware; there is a new layer of software [virtualization] that coordinates compute resources. Applications also no longer touch the OS; they touch frameworks," he said.
By acquiring SpringSource, VMware gains the means to integrate its virtualization technology with future Java applications.
"The great genius of virtualization is that we can work with apps unmodified -- encapsulate them and slide functionality beneath them," Maritz said. But to "get where we need to go -- where apps are truly autonomic … and the cloud 'auto-magically' runs it for you, we need to have much more information about the application environment and flow it down to the vSphere layer. Having that hardware-facing and app-facing assets allows us to do that deeper integration."
In other words, "This is about making virtualization more application-aware," said Maritz. "We're doing this for the potential for innovation, and to help transform VMware into much more than it is today."
It should be noted that Maritz and his cronies Tod Nielsen, VMware COO and Richard McAnnif, VMware chief development officer have played this platform building game before, said APM Experts' Harzog. During the 1990s at Microsoft, the three were instrumental in building out Windows NT and MSDN.
Harzog said a combined VMware-Spring offering would enable much more "intelligent and portable" applications than are possible today. With access to the Java runtime, developers could package multi-tier applications in a VMware vApp format that included information such as the application's security and network settings, and the order in which services needed to be brought online. With that capability, "you could take a vApp and copy it from an internal to an external cloud, and it would just run," he said.
But VMware's success is anything but certain, said Harzog. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is Microsoft and the legions of Windows and .NET developers it has cultivated. And even among enterprise Java developers, Spring faces formidable competition from Oracle's BEA Systems and IBM's WebSphere frameworks. Further, Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, Java's original proprietor, raises additional questions.
"But if VMware succeeds and creates a layer of APIs [application programming interfaces] that allow applications to be virtualization-aware, that would represent a level of competitive threat that, frankly, Microsoft has never seen before," Harzog said.
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