VMware first announced its concept of the virtual data center operating system (VDC-OS) at VMworld 2008. Paul Maritz, VMware Inc.'s CEO at the time, took the stage and began to share his vision of a software-defined data center. Maritz is no longer in the driver's seat, but this destination of a virtual data center operating system and the software-defined data center is finally coming into view.
At VMworld 2013, the concept of a VDC OS took two big steps forward. Though VMware's ESXi hypervisor had become a key element of data center infrastructures around the world, it was not a full-featured operating system. It was packed with advanced storage features, but it lacked a robust virtualized storage approach of its own. Likewise, while VMware's networking features have made dramatic gains over the last five years, these virtual networking devices were still unable to replace the features of a physical networking infrastructure.
In recent years, VMware has made great strides in its storage features. Most notably, the release of VMware's vStorage APIs for Array Integration (VAAI) opened the door to allow a virtual environment to better leverage what storage vendors had to offer. Storage vendors were advancing their technologies at a rapid pace, tapping into increased memory densities, processor improvements and solid-state drive technologies to deliver a wide range of new and improved storage products. With VAAI, VMware enabled customers to offload tasks to the storage environment, allowing the virtual environment to tap into the power of these new arrays. However, the virtual environment was still dependent on a physical infrastructure it couldn't control and it wasn't' quite a VDC-OS.
On the networking front, VMware was even more dependent on outside resources. I have long joked that the vSwitch within VMware's ESXi hypervisor should instead be called a vHub. The vSwitch, or even the vNetwork Distributed Switch, applies little or no intelligence to the routing and flow of traffic -- the upstream physical switches do all of that work. Again, though VMware was making progress, the virtual data center OS was still a long way off.
Finally: vSAN and NSX
This changed at VMworld 2013. VMware announced two new products that will bring VMware's virtual infrastructure on par with physical infrastructures and create a fully functional ecosystem that would qualify as a virtual data center OS. These new products are VMware's new Virtual Storage Area Network (vSAN) and VMware NSX.
VSAN will create a robust, high-performance and highly available storage approach, using the internal drives on ESXi hosts. It will leverage solid-state technologies to create read and write caching options, while combining storage resources from multiple servers to create a pool of highly available storage. This storage is fully redundant, able to handle failures of individual drives or entire ESXi hosts. Many ESXi hosts already have internal drives, and vSAN will allow vSphere administrators to leverage that raw storage space to either augment or replace traditional storage resources.
On the networking side, VMware NSX provides the kind of abstraction for networking that VMware brought to x86 workloads years ago. Previous releases of vSphere had advanced networking features, but most of them relied on the features and configurations of external devices. Now, VMware NSX has these same routing and security functions. With NSX, VMware has a virtual networking component that goes beyond the functions of a simple hub and provides advanced networking functionality from within the hypervisor.
In 2008, I liked Paul Maritz's vision. However, I was unable to see where that vision was going to take us. For several years, I have continued to look at each new product and ask, "Are we there yet?" I have doubted the map, questioned the route selection and wondered if the GPS was sending us across a bridge to nowhere. But, now, I see it. I see the VDC-OS coming into view. NSX and vSAN have brought it into focus, and I like what I see on the horizon.