Microsoft, VMware and Amazon jockey for pole position in race to manage the cloud

Three companies each have their own method of linking an organisation’s datacentre with public clouds, but each one holds risks and benefits for the customer that must be considered.
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

With Microsoft's new version of Windows Server, the company has committed to a proprietary model of computing where the Redmond software giant makes sure all roads lead to Azure, its own cloud offering.

Microsoft's update is just one of the moves underway as tech companies look to consolidate their positions in the vitally important cloud computing space. Three of the largest players, Microsoft, VMware and Amazon, are trying to strengthen their positions using very different strategies that will force big - and hard-to-reverse - decisions on the organisations that adopt their technologies, and raise issues about vendor lock-in and standards.

Better the devil you know

Microsoft's tactic is simple - most enterprises use its desktop operating system and a large amount use its server management software as well. (In the second quarter of 2012, just under half [47.9 percent] of all the revenue generated from worldwide server shipping came from Windows Server boxes, according to IDC.)

Windows Azure

However, much of these workloads could easily move to the private cloud, where Microsoft is in competition with companies like VMware, or to the public cloud, where fewer companies use Microsoft's Windows Azure compared to Amazon Web Services's suite of technologies.

Microsoft's solution, along with tweaking its Windows Azure public cloud, is to have more of the characteristics of Amazon's, and to update Windows Server to be its 'cloud OS'. It has attempted to do this by increasing the capabilities of its Hyper-V hypervisor to add better replication and software-defined networking features, along with usability tweaks to bring the user interface in line with the clean, modern interface used in Azure. 

Along with the above, it has closely tied Azure and Windows Server together. For instance, it has made it easier to tie data on the two systems together by introducing the Windows Virtual Hard Disk feature, which lets admins bundle data into a VHD file and sling it up into Azure.

With its cloud, Microsoft is betting that enterprise customers want to go from one familiar interface (Windows 7, in a few years Windows 8), into another (Windows Server), then perhaps dabble with some advanced cloud management (System Center 2012), and finally put some data on the road to the cloud which, yes, will look very much like the on-premise environment.

Microsoft's operating system versus VMware's application

In contrast, VMware is aiming to use its dominance of the application layer - via its widely used virtualisation technology - as a lever with which to move enterprises into its own cloud. As of July, VMware had 52.4 percent of virtualised workloads sitting on its hypervisor, while Microsoft had 26.6 percent, according to IDC. While Microsoft has great tools for managing Windows and Windows-virtualised environments, VMware has the edge when it comes to virtualised applications.

In VMware's world, administrators are not managing multiple operating systems but are instead managing applications. The benefits to this approach are the flexibility it brings administrators, with access control policies and data migration made easier by the greater granularity of VMware's technology.

In VMware's world, administrators are not managing multiple operating systems but are instead managing applications

However, it also has drawbacks - namely that if you want to manage all these virtual machines, you need to use VMware's technology, and if you want to move to a cloud, you need to find one that gives you the management tools you are used to with VMware.

Unfortunately, there are not many of these around, and those that do exist are either funded by VMware - Cloud Foundry - or built atop its vCloud Director software. Though VMware likes to point to examples of public and private clouds based around its vCloud Director software (a sportswear company, a telecommunications company, etc), none of them are very big compared to incumbents like Amazon.

VMware's problem is that its technology has been phenomenally successful in the datacentre, but when it comes to the cloud, companies like to have greater control over their technology. As a hypervisor is to data, so a water filter is to water: cloud companies do not necessarily want to build their money-making services around something proprietary operated by a competitor.

For this reason major clouds either use technology that is proprietary (Microsoft, via Hyper-V for Azure), open source (Red Hat via KVM), or shrouded in secrecy (Amazon Web Services, via a tweaked Xen hypervisor).

So if clouds are not willing to directly support VMware, it adds another step for administrators when migrating data into public clouds. To shift information into Amazon, for example, you need to use Amazon's EC2 VM Import Connector to pull in information from ESX VMDK images, among others.

So where does this leave VMware? In much the same position it's been in for the past two years - flailing around with its great success in the datacentre, and struggling to carve out a space for itself in the huge clouds. If you use VMware, then building a VMware-based cloud makes a lot of sense for you, and VMware is aware of this; it is adding more and more features and capabilities to its software in this area. However, get too attached and you could find yourself locked in.

Amazon wants it all

That leaves Amazon, which has come at the issue from the opposite direction to Microsoft and VMware.

While these two companies have sought to shift their customers' data up and into the cloud, Amazon has gone the other way and has focused on making it easier for administrators to pull data down from Amazon and into their on-premise datacentre.

Its rationale is that its cloud can become the main cloud that companies use when going public, and to do this it is building a large set of technologies to make it easier to link private clouds with its own.

Amazon's strategy is one of divide and conquer, where it attacks the on-premise datacentre from many different points. It has its own initiatives, such as the Amazon Storage Gateway, to install itself via an agent into the private datacentre.

It also has partnerships, such as its important tie-up with Eucalyptus, a provider of on-premise cloud software.

Finally, Amazon, due to its size and the growing importance of its APIs, is being supported by the major enterprise companies, with organisations from Oracle to IBM building technologies that help data move from their applications into its cloud.

Amazon's strategy is the simplest one for the company, as it mostly involves standing back and letting the software interconnections accrue, but can be the greatest headache for the storage administrator. This is because Amazon's success has come from organic adoption by an ecosystem of software partners, contributors and hangers-on. This presents the enterprise with a lot of options, but few management capabilities, nor a single user experience.

Taken together, when we look at Microsoft, VMware and Amazon's attitudes to cloud we are presented with three choices. Either an administrator can get totally locked in to Microsoft and enjoy the simplification that comes from that; or they can get a bit more complication by opting for a fragmented-but-well-supported VMware experience; or they can take any concept of usability out back and shoot it in the head, and go for an all-Amazon solution, thereby enjoying the greatest possible amount of flexibility. 

Each choice has its drawbacks and its benefits, but with three horses in the race for end-to-end clouds, it's likely the level of competition will bring lower prices and more features to the market as the companies compete for administrators' workloads.

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