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VMware plans to overhaul vSphere for Kubernetes

VMware may be late to the Kubernetes party, but its plan to roll native support into vSphere could be a game changer.

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Kubernetes eats the container orchestration world, VMware is hoping it can get a bite.

In recent months, VMware has gobbled up Bitnami and Heptio and announced plans to buy its sister company, Pivotal. Those acquisitions set the stage for VMware Tanzu, a new portfolio of products and services designed to help companies build, manage and run applications on Kubernetes.

VMware's container strategy redux also includes Project Pacific, a technology preview of the next version of vSphere that embeds Kubernetes natively in the company's flagship virtualization software.

"[Project Pacific] is the most significant rearchitecting of vSphere and vCenter, certainly in the last decade," VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger said.

VMware is just the latest on a long list of companies that have hitched their future fortunes to the Kubernetes bandwagon. However, it could be one of the best positioned to turn today's red-hot interest in Kubernetes into market share.

"Depending on how they take this to market, it could be a huge game changer," IDC analyst Gary Chen said. "This could undercut a lot of their competitors if all of their vSphere customers get it for free or even a minimal cost."

VMware's vSphere is by far the most popular on-premises virtualization management software, and it's used by nearly all Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile, Kubernetes has emerged as the industry darling and now dominates the open source container orchestration conversation, though enterprise adoption for production environments remains low as the platform matures.

Stiff competition

Even with a broad customer install base, VMware will still face fierce competition from a long list of other companies that were early to market with Kubernetes management tools, 451 Research analyst Eric Hanselman said.

"Those customers who are fully cloud-native are probably too far down the road, but in terms of VMware's core customer base, the timing looks good. The question is: How soon will they actually deliver this? This is a work in progress," Hanselman said.

VMware plans to bring Project Pacific to customers participating in vSphere beta testing by later this year, Gelsinger said. Native Kubernetes integration will not be ported to previous vSphere versions, meaning customers will have to upgrade to the latest version. The company also said that vSphere 6.5 and 6.7 would reach end of support by 2021, which could encourage more customers to upgrade when the next version drops.

Rounding out the Tanzu portfolio

The new VMware Tanzu portfolio will eventually include a variety of Kubernetes-focused products and services, including one product available now, called Tanzu Mission Control.

Mission Control is a SaaS-based tool that gives IT operations staff a single dashboard to view and manage Kubernetes clusters across on-premises and cloud environments. The software can provide cluster health stats and enable operators to define security policies and enforce them across clusters. Gelsinger and other VMware executives also hinted at future announcements, saying there were more products that would round out the Tanzu portfolio.

VMware has previously rolled out container-focused products and features -- including vSphere Integrated Containers, Project Photon and VMware Pivotal Container Service -- with varying levels of success.

"This is the year that VMware has finally made a big shift to adopt containers as a core application construct," said Mike Matchett, founder and analyst at Small World Big Data consultancy. "It's clear that VMware understands that, to be successful in a cloud world, they will have to transition their formerly data center-focused functionality into horizontally applicable services that can cut across both hybrid and multi-cloud while extending consistently from edge to core."

Much of the interest in Kubernetes today is driven by developers who want to use containers to deploy cloud-native applications at scale. This can put pressure on IT operations staff to support and deliver the underlying infrastructure, a challenge familiar to many VMware customers here at VMworld.

"We don't use [Kubernetes] right now, but we have a development group that talks a lot about containers. So, it's something we're going to look into more," said Dave Utter, system administrator at NBT Bancorp, a financial service holding company based in Norwich, N.Y.

VMware is also talking up its new relationship with developers -- citing the addition of Heptio and Pivotal customers -- as well as its growing contribution to open source projects, specifically Kubernetes.

"We think Kubernetes is a game changer," Gelsinger said. "We think it is one of these transformative technologies that only come around every decade or two. It's that big. And so, we're not going to miss that opportunity to leap onto, to participate in and to accelerate building embodiments of that for our enterprise customers."

Ryann Burnett also contributed to this report.

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