VMware’s OpenStack strategy: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

VMware embraces OpenStack. But didn’t they use to hate each other?

Two years ago the news that VMware would be embracing OpenStack as a major headlining item on the first day of its major U.S. conference would have been borderline unimaginable.

But today the venerable virtualization company announced greater fidelity between its proprietary software management products and one of the hottest open source projects attempting to make its way into IT shops: OpenStack.

+READ MORE: VMware prepares OpenStack for enterprise use +

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The two once disperate worlds of OpenStack and VMware are coming together. 

VMware is integrating OpenStack application programming interfaces (APIs) into its cloud management software, meaning that customers can run an OpenStack-based cloud using VMware’s management tools. In doing so, VMware also announced its own distribution of OpenStack which runs completely on VMware software.

The move could be a surprise to many because some view OpenStack as a VMware killer. On some levels, OpenStack is a competing platform for VMware. But in many other ways, OpenStack and VMware in fact work very well together.

Here’s some background: When it started more than four years ago, OpenStack’s initial aims were at providing an open source alternative to proprietary clouds in the market, most notably Amazon Web Services. The idea was to provide an open source code that service providers could use to build public clouds to take on AWS. Companies like Rackspace, HP, and Metacloud have done this.

Another part of the OpenStack movement has been using the free open source software to build private clouds. Companies like Piston Cloud Computing Co., Cloudscaling and others will take the OpenStack code and package it together in a software platform that customers can use to build private clouds. VMware has its own software for building private clouds too though. In some people’s eyes, that spelled competition between VMware and OpenStack.

But OpenStack by itself is not a product. It is a set of components that when put together create a reference architecture for building a cloud. OpenStack comes with tools for support virtual machines, but it doesn’t specify what hypervisor to use. OpenStack code provides the architecture for storage, but it doesn’t provide the underlying storage array. “OpenStack does not provide an out of the box cloud,” says VMware Software Defined Data Center (SDDC) business unit general manager John Gilmartin. “The challenge a lot of organizations have had is plugging in those components and making them work.”

OpenStack code by itself is not a competitor to VMware, but the private cloud products that vendors have used to take on VMware are. Today, VMware is undercutting those efforts by embracing OpenStack itself.

Gary Chen, IDC’s analyst who focuses on the virtualization and cloud management market, says VMware was likely drawn to make this move at the behest of customers. Private cloud users who want to ensure portability of applications like the idea of using open source APIs, like OpenStack. It does not guarantee portability, Chen says,  but it makes it easier. He worries though that VMware’s OpenStack distribution, so far, is very limited to working only with VMware tools; it doesn’t allow customers to just implant any storage array or hypervisor. It requires VMware management tools to be used. Down the line, Chen will be watching how VMware allows other OpenStack distributions to be supported within its management tools.  

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VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger.

The move to embrace OpenStack comes after years of on and off tensions between VMware about OpenStack though. Most notably, in 2012 a VMware cloud rep wrote about other cloud vendors - implying the OpenStack ones - were “squabbling,” like “ugly sisters” who were attempting to be the fairest of them all. VMware, he said, was the Prince Charming winning customers meanwhile. As if that blog post wasn’t odd enough, there was mutual dissatisfaction from VMware vendors. One company, Mirantis, initially said it was a huge mistake to let VMware participate in OpenStack.  The companies later mended ties.

After VMware bought network virtualization company Nicira for $1.2 billion in mid-2012, tensions seemed to ease. Nicira was an important contributor to the OpenStack networking efforts and the company continued its work in the open source community after the acquisition. Slowly but surely VMware embraced OpenStack more and more, officially joining the project as a corporate sponsor in September 2012.

Even since then though, there have been mixed messages from VMware regarding OpenStack. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger told Network World that OpenStack was not ready for the enterprise last year. Other VMware executives were warmer on the idea, including the company’s CTO for Americas, Chris Wolf, who sees OpenStack as a standard.

But today the company’s intentions could not be clearer. By embracing OpenStack in such a significant and public way the company is heeding to customers craving open source and changing the perception around VMware’s cloud tools.

For an open source project that has significant corporate backing, but is still looking to break into the enterprise in a significant way, this news is a milestone to have a major IT vendor back the project in such a significant way.  

If OpenStack was going to be a competing platform for VMware’s cloud plans, then VMware just pulled a quick one over the heads of other OpenStack vendors.

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