VMware claims PKS for itself with Pivotal acquisition

What Dell Technologies subsidiary VMware is getting for its $2.7 billion stock purchase includes the platform for deploying enterprise workloads on its hyper-converged infrastructure. But didn’t VMware have that anyway?
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributor

If a single platform should pave the way for enterprises to distribute parts of their virtualized data center infrastructures among multiple cloud providers -- not just Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure, but also Google Cloud Platform -- then should that platform be branded Dell Technologies, VMware, or Pivotal?  The answer came Monday morning at VMworld 2019 in San Francisco, where the company announced the inclusion of the VMware PKS automated Kubernetes platform at the forefront of the updated Dell Technologies Cloud, announced last April.

By "the company" in the above sentence, even though the conference is VMworld, we don't mean VMware, but its corporate parent Dell -- which announced its pending acquisition of Pivotal, along with cybersecurity firm Carbon Black, last Thursday. So the answer to that branding question may finally lie with Dell.

"Customers will be able to deploy enterprise-grade Kubernetes on their Dell Technologies Cloud environment faster than ever before," remarked Varun Chhabra, Dell Technologies Cloud's vice president of product marketing, during a press conference. "This will allow them to empower developers, because they will be able to meet developers' needs for Kubernetes, container-based environments. And developers can then develop cloud-native applications on [it]."

Unlike Dell's and VMware's first forays into cloud services, the current Dell Technologies Cloud (DTC) is a hybrid system that incorporates on-premises hardware, VMware virtualized infrastructure, and seamless accessibility to resources from AWS and Azure. Monday, Dell announced the addition of Google Cloud Platform to this accessibility lineup. Pivotal had already made such an arrangement with Google Cloud in 2017 -- a move perceived at the time as critical to PKS' competitiveness. Although VMware already had partnerships with Amazon AWS and, earlier, with IBM Cloud, maintaining PKS availability through Google Cloud may have been perceived as key to the platform's continued viability.

Scott Fulton

Never mind the "K," what will the "P" stand for?

Pivotal Container Service (PKS, with the "K" standing for Kubernetes) was announced two years ago at VMworld. It's a platform that lets "cloud-native applications" (built exclusively for containerized infrastructure) to be distributed to production environments using the BOSH automated deployment system initially built for Cloud Foundry -- which Pivotal has also overseen in recent years. Think of an application under development being nurtured within a secure dev environment during its early stages, then shoved neatly out the door to a hybrid cloud platform when it's ready for production.

Although PKS was one of the first such automated deployment schemes for Kubernetes and is only two years old now, it's found itself upstaged by Microsoft's recently redubbed Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) and AWS' Elastic Container Service for Kubernetes (EKS). While PKS was originally built in collaboration with Google for GCP, Google itself has been touting its basic deployment method, leveraging Kubernetes' own Deployment controller, as the preferred method. (Google is the originator of the Kubernetes orchestrator.)

While Pivotal moved forward with its design plans for PKS, making its deployment methodology consistent across the three major cloud providers, sister company VMware proceeded with its own Anthos multi-cloud deployment platform last April. The goals for both platforms there have been to enable organizations to develop containerized applications that require no specialization whatsoever for deployment on any of the three major platforms, or any combination of the three.

On top of everything else, Pivotal's PKS ended up being upstaged by its own sister company. Last February, VMware pasted over the Pivotal brand with its own for VMware Enterprise PKS, then relegated it to the upper tier of a three-tier marketing strategy. The lower tier, appealing to the everyday organization that Pivotal had originally been targeting with Cloud Foundry, was given to the Heptio platform, which VMware dubbed VMware Essential PKS following its acquisition of Heptio last November.

Dell Technologies

It's as though PKS couldn't catch a break. Now, a more nebulous, potentially re-incorporated, entity called simply "VMware PKS" is making its appearance in the deployment layer of DTC. What Dell is hoping for is that enterprises opting to expand their data center assets without expanding their own local footprints, will invest in VxRail hyper-converged hardware. It's Dell EMC's and VMware's joint brand for servers capable of provisioning compute, storage, memory, and networking resources for the applications they host, as though they were fluid commodities like water or jet fuel.

"It provides our enterprise customers with the ability to run both their traditional virtualized workloads," explained Chhabra, "on the Dell Technologies Cloud, as well as now be able to support cloud-native workloads. So it's one infrastructure stack. . . which simplifies the complexity that IT has to deal with traditionally, in supporting these different development stacks."

Will the "V" stand for anything?

Back in 2013, VMware then-sister company EMC spun off Pivotal as a semi-separate corporation, intending to consolidate several next-generation data center infrastructure projects, including Cloud Foundry, into a single business unit.

VMware, meanwhile, is the pioneer of the commercial virtualization platform, and the company that drove standardization for the first generation of virtual machines -- images of servers with all the components they would include if they were running on bare metal. Containers (formerly called "Docker containers," though Docker Inc.'s influence has since been greatly reduced) are, by comparison, highly evolved: virtual components that represent just the applications and the code they need to be functional, "shrink-wrapped" and then hosted by the physical operating system.

At first, VMware perceived containerization as a threat to its business model. If virtual machines were to be rendered obsolete -- and by open-source technology, no less -- VMware would be faced with having to pin its entire business model upon customers' continued dependence upon a technology that has yet to be fully amortized, and that they're not all that anxious to replace so soon.

Imagine a technology platform whose existence depended upon its being old and too hard to get rid of.

So it was that VMware found itself coalescing with Pivotal in the production of platforms that would, to borrow a Microsoft notion, "embrace and extend" containerization by somehow marrying it with VMs.

One of those projects was Photon, a platform that aimed to combine containers and VMs into a single Kubernetes environment. The last remaining vestige of that project is Photon OS, a miniature Linux for containers that has since, according to VMware, been "optimized for vSphere," its own commercial virtualization platform. And today, although Pivotal markets its PKS as an enterprise Kubernetes platform built around the Cloud Foundry runtime, the most visible commercial implementation carries the VMware brand.

There's an argument to be made that VMware is acquiring something that was never completely spun off to begin with.

During his company's fiscal Q2 2020 earnings call late Thursday (our thanks to Seeking Alpha for the transcript), VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger countered that argument by saying his customers are demanding a single source that, in his words, "owns and controls" the entire platform "end-to-end."

"Overall, we believe that the developer space is going through a massive transition," said Gelsinger, "and we view Kubernetes as this important strategic shift. [With] virtualization, cloud, and Java, what we see is the opportunity to be this full-stack provider, and we believe we need to own and control and end-to-end Kubernetes platform that allows us to build, manage and run Kubernetes environment.

"We have a full stack with VMware, vSphere, and vCenter or networking with NSX -- a full stack of capabilities," the CEO continued. "And we believe this ability to own that full stack is something that gives us great market opportunity. Also, we've clearly heard from customers who are demanding this move."

That left open one obvious and important question:  Pivotal's acquisition leaves not one brand but two on the stack, so long as parent company Dell's hardware remains a key component. If the market truly is demanding a single owner, as Gelsinger not only stated but restated, then how certain is he that this brand is VMware?

Just minutes before VMware announced its Pivotal acquisition Thursday, Dell's Chhabra told ZDNet that the business issue might be orthogonal to the engineering question -- of how the end-to-end Kubernetes platform will eventually work.

"Our organizational structure has very little to do with the work we're doing with Pivotal," said Chhabra. "We're going to continue to work at an engineering level to make sure that Dell, VMware, and Pivotal are working together to meet the demands of customers in the cloud-native and PaaS space. That will stand true, and you will continue to see more innovation there, regardless of how our organizational structures pan out."

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