SAN FRANCISCO - VMware celebrated its tenth annual user conference by enjoining attendees to "Defy Convention." Broadly recognized as the creative deployment of IT in the service of innovation, this year’s defiance theme may also apply to the market strategy of the virtualization giant. Over the past two days, VMware inundated its 22,500 member audience with a series of product and services announcements aimed at evolving the company’s new vision of end user compute infrastructure – the Software-Defined Data Centre (SDDC), a concept introduced last year. As VMware president and COO Carl Eschenbach noted in a keynote on day two of the event, "When people ask me if this is ambitious, I say, ‘Yes. This absolutely is ambitious.’ And when they ask if it is bold, I say, ‘Yes, it is bold’. But we can be bold because we have a track record of success."
So what is VMware’s SDDC architecture and how does it defy convention? One of the three pillars that CEO Pat Gelsinger chose to focus on as the company streamlined its own operations over the past year (the other two are end user computing and hybrid/public cloud) the new architecture involves the layer of VMware software on top of all components in the data centre to offer new levels of service and automation in next generation computing. It is in the extension of this software layer beyond server virtualization and into network, storage and systems management components that VMware is breaking new bounds, winning some friends - a growing partner ecosystem - and no doubt some more aggressive competition along the way. As the breadth of this vision is impressive, so too are the benefits that VMware believes can be delivered through the software-defined data centre. According to Eschenbach, the new software layer will reduce the "friction between the consumers and producers of IT" as it enables IT to better support business users’ resource demands, and allows IT to move past maintenance of legacy systems, shifting 70 percent of IT budgets to innovation.
At VMworld 2013, the company announced new products in the several key areas that together are intended to help customers transition their data centres to the cloud/mobile era. The first is version 5.5 of the vSphere and vCloud Suite, the company’s flagship virtualization and cloud platforms. Winnowing down enhancements that VMware has introduced to the vSphere product set, CEO Pat Gelsinger described the software as "now 2x" what it was in terms of performance, agility and speed in CPU, memory and NUMA node limits – an key factor in an era when "the fastest [business] will win." Along with improvements to the availability, storage and backup capabilities in vSphere 5.5, such as App HA which detects and recovers application or OS failure, Flash Read Cache which virtualizes server-side flash to lower application latency and a low-latency app sensitivity feature, these enhancements were designed to support customers that are also looking to virtualize business critical applications. To tackle the Big Data challenge, VMware has built extensions so customers can run Hadoop on its virtualized platform.
VMware’s enhanced virtualization suite also features new capabilities for building private clouds. The vCloud Automation Centre and vCentre Operations Management, for example, boast new levels of automation and capacity management, which were demonstrated on day two of the conference by Eschenbach with the assistance of Kit Colbert, principal engineer, VMware. Using the vCloud Automation tool and Operations Management, Colbert demoed one click ability to provision app infrastructure, along with additional functionality such as the ability to choose public, private or hybrid services, and delivery of a comparative cost breakdown for each of these on a monthly fee basis for competitive providers (ex. Amazon, VMware, etc.) as well as reporting on differential pricing for various types of apps. In addition, the latest version of vCloud Automation allows the user to choose service levels, specify the number of instances required, approve provisioning requests manually or automatically based on predefined policies, and presents a health check to let users know whether they have made good choices, recommending better alternatives if need be. In addition to policy-based automation and remediation, VMware has also introduced what Joe Baguley, VMware CTO of EMEA called "Big Data analytics for operations": in a demo of the updated Log Insight solution, Baguley was able to single out one significant operational event issues – based on the tool’s sift through 60 million events. According to Eschenbach, updates to the server cloud/virtualization suite offer new degrees of self-service and transparent pricing that address the enterprise business unit’s need for speed and cost, while providing the governance, control and automation that can help IT negotiate increasingly complex data centre environments.
A second key announcement was around VMware’s vision for software-defined storage. Virtual SAN, which is now in public beta (and available for free online) takes all direct attached storage in all clusters, (solid state discs and flash), pooling these resources to increase storage efficiency and utilization. With vSAN, IT can set up storage at the same time a vm is provisioned via the same vSphere client, and can easily scale resources with the one click addition of another host in response to an alarm signalling the end of limits on storage capacity. VMware has also built resiliency into its virtual SAN – if one disc goes down, replication begins automatically without operator intervention, or even awareness.
But the big show stopper at VMware 2013 was clearly the company’s announcement around software-defined networking. As with storage and servers, VMware has brought networking capability to the hypervisor level in a new NSX platform. NSX allows operators to treat networking as a pool of resources for transport capacity that can be created, provisioned and managed through a software layer that sits on top of the hardware. In the NSX distributed architecture, network services are integrated with the hypervisor kernel to automate the alignment of network and application scale. NSX can automate the delivery of Layer 2 - Layer 7 services via software; customers need only add more server nodes to meet increased infrastructure needs. According to Colbert, approximately 70% of data centre traffic occurs between vms - with NSX, this traffic is removed from the network, and since firewalls also reside on the hypervisor, traffic never goes to an external wire, creating a ‘’zero trust’’ approach. According to VMware, since switching, routing, firewall and load balancing are all abstracted and managed as in compute virtualization, service delivery is optimized, creating new levels of speed and efficiency.
At the event, the fundamentals of SDN were outlined by Martin Casado, creator of the OpenFlow protocol, which formed the basis for SDN, founder of Nicira Networks and currently VMware’s chief networking architect. Casado’s description of the technology is available in the accompanying video excerpt from the VMworld 2013 keynote.
Virtualized compute, storage and networking as described above serve as the foundation for VMware’s software-defined data centre. But to deliver an end-to-end virtual solution, VMware also made announcements in the public cloud and PaaS spaces, introducing vCloud Hybrid Service, which features tight integration with customers’ private clouds, as well as support for Cloud Foundry, the open platform-as-a-service offering from the Pivotal spin off, on vSphere. As Neela Jacques explains in the following video, SDDC and public cloud offerings are not "mutually exclusive," but rather "highly complementary." As the software-defined data centre works to remove compute, network, storage and security silos in a conventional data centre, VMware’s virtual data centre strategy aims to fulfill customer requirements from the data centre core to the user edge, including end user computing (VDI and personal compute management), which Jacques described as a "use case for our virtualization technology." So far, VMware has assembled a healthy contingent of new partners – over 20 with capabilities based on the new NSX platform at VMworld 2013 – for SDDC. But will partner momentum continue in face of the company’s ambitious strategy to deliver end-to-end? Stay tuned.