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VMware co-founder discusses enterprise skepticism about cloud computing

In his role as a Stanford professor, VMware co-founder Mendel Rosenblum articulated enterprise worries about cloud computing.

Fresh on the heels of his summertime exit from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc., co-founder Mendel Rosenblum outlined the relationship between virtualization and cloud computing in a panel discussion at the Emerging Technologies Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the Sept. 24 conference, Rosenblum noted that virtualization clearly lays the foundation for efforts like the cloud but also underscored enterprises' continued skepticism about adopting the new computing paradigm.

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Rosenblum resigned from VMware earlier this month, just before the company's annual VMworld conference, during which the company unveiled its ambitious Virtual Datacenter Operating System (VDC-OS) and vCloud initiatives. With vCloud, VMware strives to provide the underlying virtualization platform to an emerging class of cloud-computing providers.

The OS has been decoupled from the hardware. ... [It] needs to find something to do.
Mendel Rosenblum,
Stanford University professor/co-founder VMware Inc.

Wearing his Stanford University associate professor of computer science hat, and flanked by peers from cloud-computing pioneers Amazon.com, Google Inc. and Salesforce.com, Rosenblum defined cloud computing simply as an environment where "your software is running software somewhere else than your data center."

At the same time, virtualization is a "building block" of cloud computing, Rosenblum said, and also "a natural evolution," stemming from the way the technology decouples software from the underlying hardware, and enables workloads, or virtual machines, to move around between systems.

"You just have to feel comfortable with someone else running your software," he added. But, if enterprises' continued use of mainframes is any indication, that's a big caveat, Rosenblum suggested.

"It still stuns me that the IBM mainframe that everyone said is dead is still kicking," Rosenblum said. Even today, enterprises continue to buy mainframes and "load 30-year old software" on them. Why do they do that? "Because [they] know it works," he said. When it comes to the cloud, those enterprise IT managers are doubtlessly asking themselves, "How complex is it? How stable is it?" Sure, someday, "the cloud may be more reliable than I can run [my servers], but then the question is – when will we reach that point?"

Google's product management director and fellow panelist Matthew Glotzbach, meanwhile, painted a picture of users becoming increasingly divorced from considerations about underlying technology.

"For the average IT guy, the level of abstraction keeps moving up a level," said Glotzbach. "With the cloud, barriers to integration between two systems fall away. … People care less and less about the specifics."

Rosenblum concurred that, at the low level, moving virtual machines around between cloud providers is probably easy enough, but that higher up the stack, moving data between application providers was another story. Turning to Salesforce.com Executive Vice President of Technology Parker Harris, Rosenblum said "I'm assuming that jumping from Salesforce.com to another CRM [customer relationship management] vendor wouldn't be as simple."

"Once you use a service, you get lock-in," Harris concurred.

The future of the OS
With VMware virtualization seen as a threat to Microsoft Windows, Rosenblum also fielded questions about the future of the general-purpose operating system. "Oh boy, here we go," he said. "Traditionally, the operating system has been a layer of software that presents an abstraction between the hardware and the applications," he continued. With the introduction of virtualization, however, "the OS has been decoupled from the hardware," and "needs to find something interesting to do." That "something," Rosenblum predicted, has more to do with applications than it does with defining an interface to underlying hardware. Going forward, the OS becomes "the choice of the developer: what best fits the needs of their applications rather than what hardware they need to run on."

Rosenblum's don't-just believe-the-hype message comes at a time when cloud computing is all-pervasive in discussions about the next steps for virtualization. Providing balance, Rosenblum's comments laid out the fast-moving target that virtualization has become, with implications throughout the stack. But Rosenblum also cautioned that the still-infant cloud computing model has yet to address data center managers' skepticism about relinquishing control and handing software over to a provider.

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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