Kubernetes gameplay key to VMware strategy, but execution speed critical

With containers poised to replace virtual machines, VMware's plans to go big on Kubernetes are significant to its future growth, but its speed in executing on this strategy will be critical to fending off potential competitors.

SAN FRANCISCO, USA -- VMware will have to speed up the rollout of its offerings to become the go-to vendor for enterprises looking to modernise their applications, or it risks having competitors step in for a piece of the burgeoning market. The US virtualisation player has been talking up the importance of containers -- with Kubernetes a critical piece -- as businesses re-architect their applications and the need for tools to help developers build, run, and manage applications for a multi-cloud environment. 

At VMworld this week, the technology vendor made a slew of announcements outlining its plans to release tools designed to transform the way businesses developed next-generation software -- in particular, on Kubernetes. Amongst these was Tanzu, VMware's new brand of products and services designed for Kubernetes, which included Pivotal Container Service (PKS) and Mission Control, and future releases from its pending acquisition of Pivotal

Speaking at the conference earlier in the week, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger said Tanzu -- which was Japanese for container -- underscored the company's belief that Kubernetes played a key role in automating the deployment and management of containerised applications. 

In a previous ZDNet report, Gelsinger likened the open source platform to what Java was as a software extractor for two decades during the turn of the century and expressed that VMware had the potential to be "the dial-tone provider for enterprise Kubernetes".

Its success, however, would depend on how quickly it can execute on its plans, according to Joseph Sweeney, advisor for workforce transformation at research firm IBRS. So far, VMware has yet to fully roll out most of the products it talked about this week, Sweeney said, who spoke to ZDNet on the sidelines of the conference.

"I'm not convinced they've got everything they say will be delivered. A lot of it feels like a statement of intent, rather than an actual deployment at this point," he said, but noted that the vendor's plans for Tanzu were significant to its future strategy. 

He explained that virtualisation as a computing model was being replaced by containers and VMware, whose core base is steeped in virtualisation, would have to evolve to ensure its continued growth. 

"If VMware remains or intends to remain purely on virtual machines, its future would not look good because we're moving into a different computing model that has more agility underneath, more cloud native, and that's containerisation," he said. "And Kubernetes is a way you managed containers and bring them together." 

Sweeney added that VMware's expertise on delivering management tools around virtualisation would stand it in good stead, if it can transition this to containers and follow through with its announcements this week. 

"What they've presented here is very much proof-of-concept [but] I suspect they will execute very quickly on it because the hard part isn't Kubernetes but managing things at scale and VMware knows how to do that," he said. "So it's a way for them to protect their core strength, offering management software to virtualise and now container environment. If they don't, some other company [such as an open source player] will, so I think it's a sound strategy."

Duncan Hewett, VMware's senior vice president and Asia-Pacific Japan general manager, though, said the vendor typically announced new capabilities to provide customers with a view of future developments on its platform. 

"And we'll make stuff available today and more continue to be delivered over time," Hewett told ZDNet on the sidelines of the VMworld conference. He added that some components of Tanzu already were available when it was announced. Its acquisition of Heptio last year also brought along an "operational" Kubernetes management platform, which made up part of the Tanzu suite, he said, adding that Tanzu Mission Control was available as a beta from this acquisition. 

In addition, its pending acquisition of Pivotal encompassed tools and customers from a company that had been established for more than seven years, he said. "Some we're announcing [this week] as a technical preview or beta code for people to work with us to provide input on where we need to finish the development or test what's already there," he noted.

Hewett also sees opportunities for a strong uptake of these tools in the Asia-Pacific, where there is rapid application development amongst enterprises. Noting that Asia was leapfrogging other regions due to its large consumer population, strong mobile adoption, and comparatively fewer legacy systems, he said some markets such as Myanmar have modernised quickly and their domestic banks could deliver services via mobile phones. 

This has meant enterprises in these markets are moving straight to software-defined infrastructure from the get-go and this has fuelled the need for modern applications, he said. 

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With its Kubernetes gameplay -- the "most strategic" for VMware -- Sweeney said the vendor's priorities for the Asia-Pacific should be straightforward enough. 

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"They have a huge partner base that's experienced with management tools and a big base of engineers insider organisations who know how to run virtual machines. Now, they can run containers on Kubernetes," he said, noting that the skillsets required for both platforms were not vastly different. "So you have DevOps folks who can now be brought into the fold. From a cost perspective, that's hugely beneficial." 

Asked if VMware should look to establish partnerships with local and regional cloud providers in Asia such as Alibaba and Huawei, similar to its alliance with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Sweeney said it "probably wouldn't hurt". Given the current geopolitical tensions however, it would need to take into account how it navigates this climate, he said. 

And while VMware's partnership with AWS encompassed a deeper level of integration between their products, he noted that this deep-dive optimisation work was beneficial but not an essential consideration for most organisations, since enterprises typically adopt a "lift and shift" approach with their cloud deployment.

Rather, VMware's challenge is likely to come from Microsoft Azure, which has seen robust growth in the Asia-Pacific including China. 

Furthermore, Microsoft's recent announcement regarding changes to its software licensing has been seen as a way to limit "bleed[ing]" from customers moving their on-premise Microsoft applications to a competing cloud platform, Sweeney said. He added that the software vendor also could offer licensing incentives to motivate customers to remain within a Microsoft software stack and cloud ecosystem, keeping them from moving to a VMware stack. 

"[The move] is more targeted at AWS, but it can be a problem for VMware because now [the latter] has a less likely chance of doing that migration [for enterprise customers]," he said, adding that there were suggestions Microsoft's licensing change had targeted VMware's partnership with AWS.

Hewett acknowledged that Microsoft's licensing move was causing some concerns amongst some enterprises in the region, but said VMware was not seeing any pressure from its customers. He said the vendor has established partnerships with cloud players including Microsoft and Google to help ease customers' run workloads on-premise and in the cloud. 

And given it has the largest installed base of virtual machines, few enterprises would want to change their virtual machines to move to an Azure cloud since there is little business value in doing so, Hewett said. 

VMware and Dell Technologies, in April, announced an "expanded partnership" with Microsoft to provide customers a "native, supported, and certified" VMware experience on Azure. This integration is expected to be available in Southeast Asia and Australia by end-2019 as well as Japan in the first half of 2020. 

Based in Singapore, Eileen Yu reported for ZDNet from VMworld 2019 in San Francisco on the invitation of VMware. 

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