VMware Doubles Down On Heterogeneity With Nicira Acquisition, Steers Course To The Software Defined Datacenter

As HP, IBM, Dell, and Cisco battle each other to develop workload-centric infrastructures that tie hardware and software together, VMware continues to blaze the software-only path. Forrester's Dave Bartoletti shares how the latest acquisitions signal an important strategy shift for VMware.
Written by Phil LeClare, Contributor

Following on the heels of a very busy couple of weeks, VMware announced its acquisition of Nicira yesterday. This comes after the virtualization leader bought DynamicOps, then followed that with a management shakeup, which James Staten wrote about yesterday. Taken together, this flurry of activity is designed to make a strong statement: VMware wants to lead the way to the software-defined datacenter. In this brave new world, not only are compute workloads created, managed, and reclaimed automatically (through server virtualization), but their accompanying network, storage, security, and related components are as well.  

At the core of the software-defined datacenter is an abstracted and pooled set of shared resources. But the secret sauce is in the automation that slices up and allocates those shared resources on-demand, without manual tinkering. This is how the largest public clouds work today, but it’s not how the bulk of large enterprise datacenters work. VMware recognizes that and has been extending its reach beyond the compute stack for a while.

vSphere offers virtual switching, vShield Network and Security services, and support for the VXLAN protocol. These go a long way to virtualizing networking hardware and put them under the hypervisor domain. Along the same lines, the vSphere Storage Appliance and a host of array integrationssimplify and automate the allocation of storage to virtual workloads. But all of these features, until recently, have been for vSphere environments only. In other words, you can create a software-defined datacenter (or part of a datacenter) with VMware if you’re all-in on vSphere virtual machines. If you want to extend workloads to a public cloud, you’ll need to find one that offers VMware platforms and tools.

The DynamicOps acquisition changed this conversation. DynamicOps already manages non-VMware hypervisors as well as workloads running on open virtualization platforms in multiple clouds. Read: heterogeneous VM support. And now with Nicira, VMware owns a software defined networking (SDN) solution that was designed for heterogeneous hypervisor and cloud environments.

Six months ago, Nicira launched its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) with multiple lighthouse accounts — AT&T, eBay, Japanese telecom NTT, Fidelity, and Rackspace — singing NVP’s praises. NVP is software that enables the creation of virtual Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks that operate independent of the underlying physical network. The key components of the NVP software suite are: Open vSwitch(OVS), NVP Controller; and the RESTful API that integrates into a range of Cloud Management Systems (CMS), including a Quantum plug-in for OpenStack.  With VMware leveraging OVS and tying NVP controllers together with vSwitch, VMware can initiate VM movement and control across multiple hypervisor platforms and infrastructures (both public and private clouds).

This is an important strategy shift for VMware. The launch of Cloud Foundry showed that VMware takes open standards seriously, at least in the platform-as-a-service space. The latest acquisitions signal that VMware is ready to acknowledge that the future of both infrastructure-as-a-service clouds AND enterprise datacenters will include multiple hypervisors, VMs of many flavors, and open-standards based networking tools from multiple sources. VMware will still be able to innovate and offer leading capabilities designed for vSphere first, while still embracing both open standards and competing platforms and tools.

The battleground for the enterprise cloud is moving up the management stack. VMware is smart to scoop up innovators focused on automation — that’s how the software-defined datacenter will have to operate.

As HP, IBM, Dell, and Cisco battle each other to develop workload-centric infrastructures that tie hardware and software together, VMware continues to blaze the software-only path. Can we live without ASICs or dedicated hardware? Will IT platforms be based on commodity hardware managed by intelligent software? Or will it be composite of both and follow other industries like trucking, consumer appliances and others that leverage commodity components to build complete hardware/software solutions?

[Forrester analysts Andre Kindness and Rich Fichera contributed to this post]

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