VMware plots datacenters without wetware

Anyone who earns their livelihood in a data center should listen carefully to what's being said at this week's VMworld because it puts their job on the line.

The messages coming out of this week's VMworld conference in San Francisco should worry anyone who earns their livelihood working in a data center — especially if their main role is maintaining and configuring network kit. "If we look in the data center of today we see a museum of the past," VMware's incoming CEO Pat Gelsinger said in his keynote. "It's time to move on."

VMware's new strategy is audacious and far-reaching. Hitherto known for virtualizing servers, the company now has a much broader target following its recent acquisition of software defined networking specialist Nicira , along with cloud management vendor DynamicOps and other product moves. The company's CTO Steve Herrod spelt out the objective last week in a podcast conversation with Dana Gardner : "It might take seconds to provision a VM, but then it takes five days to get the rest of the solutions around it. So we see, first of all, the need to get the entire datacenter to be as flexible and fast moving as the pure server components are right now."

The five days Herrod refers to are taken up by all the networking, storage and management configuration steps required to set up firewalls, virtual LANs, logical disks and other components required to operate an application once it's been installed on a virtual machine (VM). If you can eliminate all those laborious steps through further virtualization and automation then you can reduce the five days down to the same few seconds that it takes today to provision the virtual server itself. But those five days represent a week's gainful employment for someone who is no longer needed. The "museum of the past" that Gelsinger sees in today's data centers is populated by cohorts of workers that have no place in this virtualized future.

Nicira's VP of marketing Alan Cohen spelt out the message more bluntly when he and I spoke a few months back, well before the VMware deal was done: "We remove a lot of the human beings who've done all this rote configuration — it eliminates all this human middleware." As I wrote in an earlier blog post on Nicira's impact, Cisco should worry, too. "We manage the networking stack in the server layer," Cohen explained, which means all the network configuration happens virtually in servers rather than being handled by network switches and routers. "We tunnel traffic through the physical network and we just use it as a backplane. It's extremely disruptive [for network vendors] and extremely non-disruptive [for server vendors] at the same time."

It will take a while, nevertheless, for this decimation of data center employment to play out. Physical configuration of devices is so ingrained in the infrastructure that many management software suites are hardcoded to interact with physical device addresses. They will need to be upgraded or replaced before the fully virtualized data center becomes a reality for the enterprises they serve. As Cohen told me, "The further you go down into the enterprise, those organizations are not organized for a virtual IT environment. They still have the same silos," he said. "As long as people are standing up protecting silos, it will take longer."

And yet — picking up on the theme of my post yesterday — while traditionalists preserve and perhaps even cloud-wash their silos, the enterprise as a whole suffers because it fails to adapt quickly enough to the changing dynamics of the wider business environment. Nicira's experience with its few dozen customers to date has been that software-defined networking delivers the speed and agility they need to remain competitive. "It's not about cost, it's not about operations, it's about speed," Cohen told me. "The bigger speed we enable is business process speed," which in turn provides a foundation for transforming how the business operates, provided the enterprise is ready to take that step. "The bigger issue is, are they prepared to change their organizational structures to go faster?" said Cohen. That means fewer people in the data center and readiness for rapid decision-making and change elsewhere in the business.

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