Which companies have had the biggest global impact on computing? You'd probably want to include venerable institutions like IBM, Microsoft and Intel, but would you put VMware in that select bunch?
VMware believes it is up there with Big Blue et al, despite being a comparative Johnny-come-lately to the computing racket and nothing more than a virtualization technology subsidiary of EMC, an otherwise unremarkable storage company.
Talking in San Francisco yesterday at the launch of VMware's much anticipated vSphere 5 and a suite of cloud-enabling software, CEO Paul Maritz appeared to stake VMware's claim to greatness.
Over the last 13 to 14 years (since VMware was founded) we have seen the emergence of a new platform that is now carrying more than 50 percent of the world's computing load. More than 50 percent of the world's back-end data center applications are now running on this new way of delivering infrastructure, the majority of that on vSphere. What other platform in the world's history in the space of 15 years has gone to the point where it could carry more than 50 percent of the available workloads? Maybe the IBM mainframe in the early '60s, and maybe the Intel x86 architecture in the late '90s ...
The implication is clear: VMware is as massively significant as IBM or Intel. Bold stuff indeed. But Maritz, who you'll recall used to be massively significant at Microsoft, also believes VMware is going to be as dominant as his former employer. "I remember in the early 1990s when we realized that white collar workers didn't need a collection of individual point products; they needed an integrated solution, and we declared Microsoft Office. We were going to be in the integrated tools business for white-collar workers. Today, we are declaring that we are going to be in the integrated infrastructure business for delivering automated data centers."
Considering Microsoft now has a virtual monopoly on the productivity suite business, having obliterated competition from the likes of Lotus and WordPerfect, you have to wonder what Citrix and Microsoft think of VMware planning its cloud computing software to be the Microsoft Office of virtualization suites.
VMware has being talking a lot lately about virtualizing mission-critical applications on its hypervisor. Yesterday's vSphere 5 announcement made this a little more credible. That's because while vSphere 4 could support only comparatively puny virtual machines with eight virtual processors, 256MB RAM, 30Gb/s and 300,000 IOPs, the new version of vSphere now supports virtual machines with up to 32 virtual processors, 1TB of RAM, handling more than 36Gb/s of network capacity and 1m IOPs "Some of the engineers dubbed these 'monster VMs,'" said Stephen Herrod, VMware's CTO. "They are now bigger than many of the physical machines people have historically had, and that is enabling them to run the most critical applications."
The company's licensing regime has also been changed. Now, customers pay per processor socket for server virtualization, regardless of the number of cores in each processor, instead of per core, as before. The amount of virtual memory each virtual machine can use is also now subject to license restrictions. Previously, it was the physical memory of the host that was subject to licensing restrictions.
Herrod also announced vSphere Replication, which allows users to transfer data and virtual machines to a remote site without the need for storage array-based replication by moving the replication into vSphere software. This makes replication much less expensive, he said. Also announced was automated failback to the original site once a disaster situation is over. This has many potential uses beyond disaster recovery -- such as disaster avoidance -- Herrod suggested. For example, a company could move its workloads out of a data center when it knows a hurricane is on its way, them move them back to the original data center after the storm has passed. Outside the sphere of disaster recovery this type of replication could be used to consolidate two data centers into one, perhaps after a corporate merger or acquisition. Assuming both companies use vSphere 5, of course.
vSphere Storage Appliance, VMware's SMB Offering
Perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement was VMware's virtual storage appliance software, dubbed vSphere Storage Appliance, which is aimed squarely at small and midsize businesses. These businesses are usually not large enough to be able to afford or have the skills to run a sophisticated shared storage resource like a SAN. They would therefore miss out on features like vMotion and some high availability, fault-tolerance and distributed resource scheduler (DRS) capabilities. vSphere Storage Appliance 1.0 is managed from vCenter Server, and it enables SMBs to transform the internal disk storage on up to three of their servers running vSphere into what looks like shared storage so they can take advantage of these features without the cost and complexity of a SAN. It's not the first virtual storage appliance software to have been developed, but being integrated with the rest of the suite it's almost bound to to be the first that takes off in a VMware environment.
VMware is clearly a company with ambitions as big as its current market share. The question really is whether it has what it takes to overwhelm competition from Microsoft and Citrix (and perhaps Red Hat,too) in the longer term to establish itself in the pantheon of its heroes: IBM, Intel and, ironically, Microsoft.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.