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IT pros take a critical look at VMware’s software-defined vision

VMware’s big talk on network virtualization, software defined data centers and cloud doesn’t line up with what many IT pros manage on a daily basis.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Virtualization giant VMware used its annual conference this week to bill itself as an end-to-end infrastructure provider, with new networking and storage virtualization products that play into its software-defined agenda.

VMware Inc. imagines virtualization customers will build a cloud based on its VMware infrastructure, while also layering in the company's NSX network virtualization and vSAN storage virtualization to create a software-defined data center.

But many of VMware’s customers are still in the throes of virtualizing the first half of their infrastructure, and comprehensive cloud projects – not to mention software-defined anything -- are still quite far off.

100% virtualization not a realistic goal
VMware execs mentioned several times here that they’re pushing customers toward the goal of a 100% virtualized data center, with features that support mission critical workloads in vSphere 5.5.

But attendees here at the conference have plenty of reasons for maintaining lower virtualization goals.

Industry-specific regulations can hold certain data and operations to physical servers. “We’re 80% virtualized,” said Jason Levasseur, systems administrator at California utility provider Pacific Gas and Electric. “We’ll probably never get to 100%. The regulated stuff is just now getting virtualized.”

That idea of 100% virtualization is not a technologically realistic goal, according to Bob Plankers, virtualization and cloud architect at a major Mid­western university.

“I believe the term would be ‘pipe dream,’” he said. “There are things you are not going to be able to virtualize, like domain name servers and Active Directory servers. The things you built your infrastructure on can’t be in the infrastructure sometimes.”

Virtualizing mission-critical apps is also a common challenge for data center administrators. Smaller businesses are also working on initial virtualization projects.

“The enterprise and upper midmarket companies are more than 50% virtualized,” said Thomas Wood, principal consultant at Highwater Systems in Atlanta, though “they're going back and revisiting that” as they consider cloud.

Less than half the data center is virtualized at Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, said Carlos Torres, manager of international services. He attended the show for a primer on virtualized cloud infrastructures. If cloud is in the bank’s future, VMware would certainly be on the short list, he said.

“There’s a huge investment in VMware, so I’m not sure how much they would want to migrate,” Torres said.

VMware pays lip service to OpenStack
VMware acknowledged open source cloud competitor OpenStack, albeit in a passive-aggressive way, at VMworld. During his keynote, CEO Pat Gelsinger announced support for OpenStack – then quickly moved on to pitch the audience on why vSphere is the best foundation for cloud.

VMware can’t ignore OpenStack as it builds up its cloud offerings. The open source platform is flexible and doesn’t require a huge investment to get started.

“OpenStack is the big elephant that just entered the room, and VMware is trying to address it from both partnering and competing [angles],” said Keith Norbie, ‎director of virtualization, server, and storage practice for the eastern half of the United States at Technology Integration Group, a system integrator based in San Diego.

But VMware’s talk of OpenStack may have been rather grudging.

“There are little subtleties that folks in the OpenStack community noticed on the slide deck [in the keynote], like ‘OpenStack’ isn’t two words,” Norbie said. “That’s like spelling VMworld with a capital ‘W.’”

Cloud forecast difficult
VMware may be trying to get out in front of open source cloud as its customers are choosing how they’ll build a private, hybrid or public cloud.

Unlike virtualization technology, clouds like Amazon Web Services (AWS) allow IT teams to dip a toe into the cloud in a limited way as they explore options. For many of VMware's customer base, though, any kind of cloud is rather distant.

“We don't have any cloud right now,” Levasseur said. “A lot of people in my industry don't use it. I do hear a lot of people pushing test and dev onto AWS.”

But for enterprise customers, OpenStack may be too risky.

“For a lot of verticals, they’re willing to accept a slightly higher risk profile when needed,” Wood of Highwater Systems said. “But they’re conservative with OpenStack. They’ve looked at alternatives to VMware [for cloud] but they’re coming back to single-hypervisor infrastructures.”

The VMware vCloud Suite met one firm’s needs for data security and a continuous, easily managed environment. For longtime VMware user Greg Ericson, VMware was the one stop for building a virtualized infrastructure and hybrid cloud. Open source cloud wasn’t really an option for Ericson, who is chief innovation officer at Press Ganey Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars in resources fixing kernel issues in open [source] products,” he said. “I think they have their place, but where we’re trying to go, our focus is on delivering value, not necessarily assembling the components.”

VMware, with cloud as networking and storage, will likely continue to try to build momentum toward data center dominance.

“[VMware] is doing a good job addressing the situation before the situation addresses them,” Norbie said. “They have the majority of the leverage to cloudify the virtualized infrastructure. The big test is going to be who wins out. Is it going to be easy buttons to get to vCloud, or market forces that would have [companies] look at OpenStack?”

“Both are going to win,” Norbie said, “and you’ll probably have something else that comes up that wins.”

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