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VMware's Greene: 'The operating system shouldn't matter'

In this interview, Diane Greene, VMware co-founder and president, talks about how virtualization could break the stranglehold Microsoft has on the computing industry.

Diane Greene, VMware co-founder and president, believes that virtualization is about more than server consolidation – a lot more. At VMworld last week in Los Angeles, editors got the chance to sit down with Greene and discuss how virtualization could radically alter the dynamics of contemporary computing -- if vendors can move beyond the model of software lock-in. As we move to a highly virtualized environment, how does the role of the operating system change?

Diane Greene: The operating system shouldn't matter to the customer anymore. What matters to them is the service they're getting and how stable [the OS] is and how well it runs. Once you put in that virtual infrastructure, the only thing that the operating system is there for is to give the application a sort of platform to run on.

[The situation] has gotten turned on its ear where the application is in charge of picking the best operating system. Historically in this industry …Microsoft has …had a complete lock on our industry, where they control the APIs to the applications, they control the APIs to all the hardware and all the hardware devices. It is their march, people go on their timing, subject to where they decide they want to go. They are a great company and they've done a lot of great things, but it is to their cadence. And that changes if there's a virtualization layer there. If all this stuff is open and interoperable, people are going to be able to mix and match, and the cadence is going to be a joint thing in the industry.

Do you see a world where ISVs are also in the business of maintaining a specialized operating system?

Greene: The big ones will. We already see that [Editor's note: see Oracle's Unbreakable Linux]. We have startups taking a version of an open source operating system and bundling and packaging it with their applications. Already, if you have software as a service hosted, who knows, who cares which operating system is being run? If you buy a hardware appliance, who knows, who cares which operating system there is? The hardware appliance vendor said, 'I want this operating system, and I'm going to make it really stable and work for my application, and the customer is never going to know what's there.' We're doing the same thing with the virtual appliance.

Are your appliance partners using a lot of open source?

Greene: Yeah, they are. They can pick what they want, rather than trying to develop for any one-size-fits-all operating system that the customer might have. They can focus all their resources on having one base that is performant and stable. It's not particularly productive work for them to have to test every possible OS patch configuration.

Do you have any plans to open source your code?

Greene: We've already created a very liberal program with our source code where any partner can come in and join this program and get full access to the source code. The code is all hosted and we have a large engineering staff to help them understand it. They can put in functionality, they can put in APIs. We started that back in August a year ago, and we have somewhere between thirty and forty companies active in the program. So, we have opened up our source in a way that I haven't seen done before. It's still our IP -- they can't take our source and redistribute it the way Oracle can with Red Hat.

What technology areas of virtualization should be standardized?

Greene: Certainly, there's the file format. Suppose the virtual machine file format were controlled by one company. How that format works will affect how you patch virtual machines, backup virtual machines -- all these very important aspects. It doesn't matter what the format is, but if one person controls it, they can use it for lock-in type advantage. It needs to be governed by a third-party standards body so [the control of it] can never be used against any other vendor. The format itself isn't that relevant.

Another thing is how operating systems are getting modified to run on a hypervisor on the virtualization. We're working with Sun and the open source community for Solaris x86 and Linux on the paravirtualization interface. But Microsoft is off doing this Enlightenment thing and hasn't really said what that is or if it will be freely usable. Customers have got to demand: 'Hey, you cannot do this. We've seen this movie before.'

Then there are interfaces -- APIs, formats, protocols -- on how you talk to virtualization to manipulate virtual machines. There's a lot of work going on there in the Distributed Management Task Force. We're pretty active, and we put our stuff out there if people want to use it.

Finally there's benchmarking. It'd be really nice to have a standard way to benchmark a virtual machine so you can compare apples to apples.

Is a lack of standards a worry?

Greene: It is because [otherwise] it's going to be the same thing all over again. We're in a leadership position, and we're actively and meticulously saying, 'Here, these can be third-party governed,' and 'We're going to play by these third-party standards.' That's how we want to compete, with no arbitrary lock-in but what's of value to the customer. That's what we built the company for. It's unusual for someone with our lead saying, 'Look, we're not trying to perpetuate this business model.'

What can customers do?

Greene: They can say: 'We're not going to run your stuff if you don't say that it can run with any hypervisor equally well.' And, 'You can't force us to use your file format for the virtual machine.' Customers need to be savvy. Already, when we first came out, Microsoft didn't support their software running in virtual machines [running on VMware]. But so many big customers said 'You need to' that they finally gave up and said, 'OK, we'll support it.' We have 20,000 enterprise customers. We've seen that customers have incredible power.

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