VMware mobile-cloud vision stirs memories of Sun 'network is computer'

Virtualization vendor's ambition to offer the tools needed in a mobile-cloud era, spanning from the network to the desktop, evokes memories of Sun Microsystems' failed "The Network is The Computer" campaign.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Organizations are moving to the mobile-cloud world and virtualization vendor, VMware, wants to provide the tools they need in this new era, spanning from the network and storage to the desktop. 

A "tectonic shift" is underway today with businesses are transitioning from a client-server computing realm to one delivered on virtualization and cloud computing, said VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, who has been evangelizing the company's vision to become a leading cloud services player. 

In Singapore on Tuesday to champion its message at VMware's Partner Exchange On Tour conference, Gelsinger told reporters here the vendor was "uniquely positioned" to tap this transition since virtualization is the underpinning technology in the mobile-cloud era.

VMware is looking to drive its vision by focusing on three primary areas: end-user computing, software-defined data center, and hybrid cloud. To deliver on these, the vendor has further identified the need to drive development in other key areas, such as virtualizing storage as well as network for speed and efficiency, and increasing market penetration rate. Gelsinger noted that there's a huge gap in Asia, for instance, where several markets are only 20 percent virtualized. 

While more matured markets such as Australia/New Zealand and Singapore have good adoption rate, other Asian markets remain under-virtualized and offer significant untapped opportunities, he said, adding that VMware also had not executed well in the region, having previously focused on larger markets. It now wants to address this by building out its network of partners.

Network is the computer, for real this time?

Another key message at the conference is the vendor's new push into the end-user computing space with the recent launch of its Horizon 6 virtual desktop suite

There's an explosion of mobile devices which were built for consumers, but have made their way into the business environment, Gelsinger said. These devices need to be secured and managed, and VMware is looking to fulfil this need for its customers, he said, pointing to the Airwatch acquisition the company inked in January to address this capability. 

During a demo, company representatives showed how the Horizon suite of tools can allow companies to remotely locate a lost mobile device and shut down further access to it.

And since all data is stored and delivered via the cloud, employees can access the same desktop user experience, including their personal system settings, across different platforms and operating systems. Depending on the platform or device from which they want to access their applications, users can do so by logging into their account via a Web browser or client-based interface.

Via Horizon 6, they can tap communications tools such as Skype that are integrated into the software suite to collaborate real-time with colleagues. Companies can also designate security zones where the camera feature in a smartphone, for instance, will be automatically disabled when the user is identified--via GPS and Assisted GPS--to have entered the designated area. 

According to William Ngoh, VMware's Asean senior product marketing manager, several customers in the region including Singapore, China, and India are currently beta testing Horizon 6. These cut across VMware's key verticals including financial services, healthcare, education, and the government sectors, Ngoh said, adding that the virtualized desktop suite is slated for general availability worldwide within the second quarter. 

As I walked through the demo set, memories of Sun Microsystems' famous tagline "The Network is The Computer" came flooding back. Right up to its acquisition by Oracle in 2010, Sun had campaigned for years its belief that distributed computing was the way forward, providing users uniformed access to their applications and data regardless of which computer they physically connect to. Computers were thin clients, or dumb terminals, and the network would handle most of the compute work and store most of the data.

Part of this vision was the Java card. Swipe it at any terminal or monitor screen and employees can access their personal desktop interface and applications based on their user profile--all of which, of course, would be served directly from the core network. Today, VMware offers the same card-accessed user profile, except that users now tap--swipe is so last century--their cards via the attached RFID reader. 

Which begs the question, will VMware along with other virtual desktop players and cloud players like Citrix succeed where Sun failed? Was Sun ahead of its time? Is the network now truly the computer? 

With the proliferation of mobile apps, appstores, social media platforms, and the various cloud services out there, we are definitely closer to Sun's vision today that it ever was 25 years ago. Documents are edited, shared, and stored in the cloud via Dropbox. The same set of photos can be viewed in your Facebook or Instagram account via any Web browser or Web-connected device. 

However, one crucial component remains the missing link today as it did during the Sun days--and that is pervasive, always-available Web connection. Across Asia, in particular, communications infrastructures are still being built out in several markets where Web connectivity remains unstable and far from ubiquitous. The power infrastructure in India, for instance, is also unstable and can impact network connection. 

Without a pipe, an open tap will provide no water. Without a Web connection, your dumb user-terminal is a dumb paperweight. 

Until there is truly always-there, always-available connectivity, I won't be looking to the network to be my computer.


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