Q&A: VMware eyes 'real' utility computing

Virtualization firm's president looks to exploit 'de facto standard' status.

VMware created the market for virtualizing x86-based servers when it introduced products in 2001. But the company, which EMC acquired in 2003, is no longer the only game in town. In recent years, competitors — including Microsoft and the open source Xen virtualization technology — have emerged as viable options for enterprises looking to slice and dice industry-standard servers. Network World Senior Editor Jennifer Mears spoke with VMware President Diane Greene recently to find out where VMware is heading. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation:

VMware Infrastructure 3 is the world’s first truly distributed system where things are automated. It’s more than the hypervisor, but VMware ESX Server got moved forward with four-way SMP, it got a whole distributed file system. We also released distributed resource scheduling and a lot of other new features. What we have the ability to do now is allocate resources by business groups.

Once you aggregate your hardware resources, you can take that and allocate a certain amount of CPU power, memory, disk and network to a group of virtual machines, and it will be guaranteed those resources. If it’s not using them, other virtual machines will be able to use those resources.

And the functionality is hierarchical. So, within that group, you can subdivide it further. So you could have some of the resources for your staging and testing and the rest of your resources for production, for example.

Another thing you might do is say you’re running out of headroom in your pool of resources, you can bring online a new set of resources — say, a new server. The system will detect that and automatically rebalance it.

This sounds similar to what HP and IBM and Sun have talked about with their utility computing.

Well, it’s utility computing made real and working. We had 6,000 people in this beta, and it’s shipping. We also did something around high availability where we built in cluster management, so any application that gets plopped in a virtual machine now can have automatic restart, automatic failover. Without this, it’s pretty complex to configure an application to have failover, so maybe 10% of the applications will get configured to have failure.

How do those kinds of capabilities reflect what’s going on today in the virtualization market?

If you look at what’s going on, Microsoft announced that in about two years they’re going to ship a hypervisor, and VMware Infrastructure is so far beyond a hypervisor. A hypervisor is the single-node thing that goes on a single server.

Before virtualization, if you had an application, and you wanted to provision it, you had to go figure out where the server was, where the storage was and very carefully do a capacity estimate, a peak-load estimate, and configure it, very statically for that server and then get it up and running, and that server had to have exactly the right operating system and be configured to that operating system.

That way of doing things is just going to seem archaic in a few years. We introduced the hypervisor, and now within a single server, you can partition it and optimize the resources. Now we’ve taken VMware Infrastructure, and it’s a fully distributed, automated pool of resources. Well, what Microsoft is talking about is a single-node hypervisor, and that’s what Xen is about, too.

Speaking of Microsoft and Xen, there is a growing number of players in the market today. Who do you see as your biggest competitors?

Well, we don’t see anything shipping that’s remotely close to what we have. We estimate there are about 1 million servers virtualized into VMware virtual machines in the enterprise today, and we have a large pharmaceutical customer [who has been running VMware ESX Server] for 800 continuous days with no crashes. That’s over two years the thing has just run. So it’s robust.

We’re taking an unusual step, because we are really the de facto standard with over a million servers virtualized and millions more if you count our desktop product. But we’re proactively trying to push open standards governed by an industry-standard body. There are three areas that we want to see open standards. Have it be very open where going forward people compete on function and quality and price, and not because of funny tie-in or licensing techniques. So the standards we want to see out there are:

* The virtual machine file format, and that’s going to affect how you patch machines, how you back them up.

* The interface between the operating system and the hypervisor. And that’s about freedom of choice. There are a lot of operating systems out there. There are all the Linux distributions, Windows, Solaris x86 and now Mac OS. You want to have all the operating systems supported incredibly well, and you want any hypervisor to be able to support them. You don’t want to have an agenda with your hypervisor around one operating system. That’s not good for the customer, because if you have to have a Windows hypervisor and a Linux hypervisor, you’re not going to be able to pool those resources. We’re also working on how you manage and manipulate virtual machines.

So with the market changing so rapidly, what should customers be looking for from VMware?

They can just expect continued retooling of the system infrastructure services. We just announced distributed resource scheduling, high availability, we also did a consolidated, agentless, off-host online backup capability that is pretty cool, where you can snapshot the virtual machine and move it to another host. So you’re backing up without interrupting any transactions that might be going on and you don’t have to have an agent on every server.

In areas like disaster recovery, security, provisioning, we see all kinds of ways to exploit VMware Infrastructure to give tremendous value to our customers.

Now that there are more players in this market, what does VMware need to do, both from a technology perspective and a business perspective, to stay on top?

We have to keep setting the bar, in quality and functionality. We offer free products [VMware Server and VMware Player] for people to try out virtualization.

Another area we’re really excited about is the virtual-appliance concept that we introduced. If you go back to this picture of a server before virtualization, what you did was you picked the server to match the operating system you wanted to run. You got that, and you built it, and you mapped the application very carefully onto that operating system and server.

In comes the hypervisor, and what that provides this really valuable separation of functionality where now there is a hypervisor worrying about the hardware and then there is an operating system worrying about the application. Operating systems are pretty big and complex, because they’re trying to manage the hardware, they’re trying to manage the application.

So if you can separate the operating system from the hardware, you’ll get more robustness and all kinds of benefits. So you put the hypervisor in there. And then you have a bundle that includes an operating system and an application. That bundle is what we’re calling a virtual appliance.

With a virtual appliance, a user isn’t even aware of the operating system. People can make composite virtual appliance like a Web service that would have a firewall and a database and an application server and a Web server. Users can then put that appliance in a virtual machine in the resource pool and guarantee resources to it. It’s incredible complexity taken out of the equation. We have about a 100 virtual appliances available for free on our Web site.

How many downloads of VMware Server have you had since you introduced the free product in February?

In the hundreds of thousands.

Are most moving to the infrastructure packages?

We get a lot of people moving up from that, but I don’t know what conversion rate is. It’s too early to tell.

Is having the free product changing the way you’re interacting with customers?

It’s interesting. Our customers all want VMware Infrastructure. But they use VMware Infrastructure differently throughout their organization depending on if it’s in test and development or in a department or in the data center or where it is. So with Infrastructure 3, we now have three tiers of packaging, so that if it’s an isolated department, you can do the bottom tier, and if you want the full resource pooling and availability, you can do the full infrastructure.

I think what will evolve is people will use VMware Server to see how the stuff works. And maybe it’s enough if all they want to do is consolidate a server or two, but if they want to get the scalability and performance they’ll move into VMware Infrastructure. Once our customers deploy the virtualization technology, they tend to expand it exponentially.

Today, what do you think VMware’s biggest shortcomings are? How are you planning to address them?

For the last eight and a half years we’ve been out evangelizing and educating people about the benefits of running virtualized and just what it means. I feel like that job is over, because people do have that awareness. And it is phase two, where now it’s making sure we articulate our value, because it is a competitive environment now. So now our focus is around moving the product forward aggressively and really helping realize the full potential of the virtualization, which is something that’s going to take us years. This standards thing is something I’m very focused on as well.

Intel and AMD both will be shipping virtualization-enhanced processors this year. How is VMware leveraging that technology? What will customers be able to do differently on those machines?

Initially, it gives us 64-bit. The next big thing after that, but it’s a little ways out, is going to be nested page tables support, which will help our memory management. That will make for even lower overhead. Sometime in ’07 you’ll start seeing that.

One customer I spoke with said he wanted to see tighter integration with some of the management tools from IBM and HP.

Yeah, we work really closely with IBM and HP around that, and they have our SDKs. We work with them on the APIs and everything. And those we’re also offering to standards bodies, so we’re working with them as fast as both sides can.

Is that something that should be happening pretty soon?

You’ll have to ask them. I think IBM already has announced some integration. I think IBM just acquired a company that provides chargeback for IBM virtual machines. And HP is doing a lot in the management space with us around virtualization.

Do you see them becoming competitors?

No, not at all. We’re never going to do physical hardware stuff we’re going to integrate in and they’re going to have the umbrella management that integrates it all.

Infrastructure 3 seems to head toward umbrella management.

We don’t do that kind of management. We’ll do monitoring, and we’ll look at the performance of things, and we’ll help with high availability and resource optimization, but we don’t want to be one of these big system-management vendors. We’re focused on the virtualized environment and making it [reliable, available, secure]. We’re basically helping users to automate everything. You get less complexity, a lot of cost savings, full freedom of choice and a service level.

Infrastructure 3 supports Microsoft virtual machines. Do you plan to support Xen?

That’s one reason we want to see the standards out there. If customers want it, we’re happy to support it. Just like we support all operating systems, all hardware, all storage. We’ll support all hypervisors.

How has being part of EMC affected VMware?

I’ve been pleased, because we’ve been able to keep growing, and they’ve been very strategic about it and left us independent.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.