The steady drumbeat of not-so positive news about VMware has been trickling out all year. First there was a Gartner report earlier this year that revealed Microsoft’s impressive Hyper-V technology was gaining ground against VMware. Then there were several stories in the mainstream business press that cast doubt on VMware’s ability to compete in the cloud with the likes of Amazon Web Services and Windows Azure.
On the cloud front, Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Vice President Satya Nadella makes a compelling argument when he says that only Microsoft’s “three cloud” strategy — tying together on-premise IT resources, hosted cloud providers, and public clouds such as Windows Azure — can provide the full three-course meal that IT managers need to fully embrace the cloud.
While it’s true that VMware is losing market share to Microsoft, it’s an inevitability when you have a new competitor entering a market long dominated by a single provider. And while Microsoft and Amazon may have more experience in managing public clouds, VMware is unarguably still the market leader when it comes to virtualization, which is the foundation upon which all private, hosted, and cloud services are built.
So while VMware has more competition and is under more market pressures than it has been at any other time in its short corporate history, here are a few reasons why I think VMware won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
1. VMware in defilade
In the realm of military tactics, a unit that is fighting from a well-defended location — such as a hardened bunker sitting atop a hill that is shielded from enemy fire by natural and man-made cover — is considered to be “in defilade.” Conversely and according to Wikipedia, a unit that is in an exposed, vulnerable position where “weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis” is considered to be “in enfilade.” Please pardon my detour info fanboy geekery, but a less complex metaphor for this is the verbal exchange between two characters from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith that roughly illustrates an analogous point:
Obi-Wan: It’s over Anakin, I have the high ground.
Anakin Skywalker: You underestimate my power!
Obi-Wan: Don’t try it.
While it wouldn’t be entirely fair (or accurate) to compare Microsoft to the soon-to-be legless Anakin Skywalker — or his eventual promotion to Darth Vader (although some VMware fanboys and -girls may giggle at the comparison) — the example proves my point: Thanks to more than a decade of relentlessly focusing on the needs of enterprise virtualization customers, VMware has embedded itself deeply into the data centers and IT budgets of mid- to large enterprises across the globe.
VMware released ESX Server 1.0 in 2001, a full seven years before Microsoft launched the first release of Hyper-V. (And yes, Microsoft acquired Virtual PC from Connectix in 2001, but none would agree that it was comparable to ESX Server. And IBM old-timers have been running virtualization for decades.) That head start has enabled VMware to entrench itself as a vital component of enterprise IT for most (if not all) of the Fortune 1000. While it’s true that the latest version of Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 R2 meets (and in some cases, exceeds) what VMware has to offer, every IT manager can tell you that the cost of yanking out VMware by the roots and retraining an IT staff with extensive VMware experience to use a competitive virtualization solution can be time- and cost-prohibitive. Microsoft will surely make gains here, but I have a feeling that VMware-created VMs will be still be spooling up in data centers everywhere years – if not decades – from now.
2. What Oracle, IBM, and VMware have in common
Much like Oracle and IBM, VMware has attained the hallowed status of the IT industry equivalent of tenure. After you’ve established yourself with decades of solid work, you can rely on the fruits of your labors to carry you forward a bit. All three of these vendors have vast installed bases for their products in industries large and small, with Oracle databases and IBM service and consulting agreements being a common occurrence. VMware has reached that same level of ubiquity, to the point that Jason Buffington — a former Microsoft employee and now a Senior Analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) — wondered aloud to me at a VMworld 2013 press event whether VMware had reached the same “they’re everywhere” status as Oracle. It’s hard to argue with that statement, and is yet another reason why I think VMware isn’t going anywhere soon.
3. Healthy partners equal a healthy VMware
I started covering the virtualization beat for Windows IT Pro in summer 2007, and soon found myself talking to lots of VMware partners about what it was like to work with VMware. At VMworld 2008 I was interviewing David M. Lynch, the VP of Marketing for VMware partner Embotics, and I asked him the same question: What is VMware like to work with as a partner? Lynch was blunt in his assessment of VMware’s failures, telling me that “We’ve asked for marketing information from Microsoft, and they’ve eventually provided it. It’s been comparatively more difficult to get that same level of cooperation from VMware.” How times have changed: VMware had hired former Microsoft exec Paul Maritz just months before I spoke with Lynch, and Maritz hadn’t managed to revamp VMware’s partner efforts yet.
What a difference a few years and effective management makes: While every partner relationship with a dominant vendor can be fraught with drama at times (see Microsoft and its partner community efforts, for example), VMware was able to embrace and support its partners, and helped grow the VMware partner community into the vibrant ecosystem it is today. As Maritz learned at Microsoft, a healthy community of partners can act as a force multiplier and help VMware fill product gaps and omissions that some customers need filled. You can see the growth of VMware’s partner network by looking at the number of exhibitors at VMworld over the years. Over 300 exhibitors were at VMworld 2013 in San Francisco, and VMware Community Manager John Troyer has pointed out some of the growth on his blog. “VMworld US 2004 had 30 sponsors in the Solutions Expo,” Troyer wrote. “Last year, VMworld US 2012 boasted over 250 sponsors in Solutions Exchange.”
4. It’s the community, stupid
Much like VMware’s strong partner network with third-party vendors and resellers, VMware has done an impressive job in working with, encouraging, rewarding, and improving the skill of the IT professionals who actually use and manage their products on a daily basis. VMware’s product forums are filled with deep technical exchanges between customers and individual product managers, while the VMware vExpert program rewards customers who have demonstrated expertise with their products, much like the Microsoft MVP program.
VMware has also done impressive work supporting other VMware communities, including the independent VMware User Group (VMUG), which boasts tens of thousands of members, more than 180 local VMUG user groups, dozens of VMUG conferences, and other benefits. Petri IT Knowledgebase VMware blogger and vExpert Brian Suhr says that individual VMUG events can draw hundreds of attendees. “If people can’t attend the normal quarterly VMUG meetings they should definitely make it to the larger VMUG conference in their area,” he says. “For example, [an upcoming] Chicago VMUG meeting [has] over 900 people registered already. These larger events typically offer a bunch of sessions that people can attend.”
And there’s more: The #vmunderground community regularly holds parties and events at VMworld conferences, and hosts thousands of members. I’ve personally attended both VMworld and Microsoft TechEd events for most of a decade, and the excitement level and community engagement at VMworld is something that I’m sure the Microsoft Hyper-V team is envious of. Don’t believe me? Google (or Bing) “VMware User Groups” and “Hyper-V User Groups,” and you’ll see what I mean.
Perhaps the thing VMware can be most grateful for is the inordinate amount of time it took Microsoft to mount a coherent and effective virtualization strategy to combat VMware. Don’t get me wrong: The Cloud and Enterprise group at Microsoft has made monumental strides with their cloud and virtualization efforts just in the last few years. It can legitimately claim that Hyper-V and Microsoft’s cloud offerings match (or exceed) what VMware has in most areas. IT managers and CIOs who haven’t compared VMware to Hyper-V should do so, because Hyper-V and it’s attendant suite of supporting products and services — including Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, and Windows Azure — make a compelling competitive argument.
That said, it took Microsoft almost a decade to release a server virtualization product that was even close to being competitive with VMware’s offerings, time that allowed VMware to continuously refine and expand their virtualization portfolio to what it is today. More importantly, it let VMware reach a level of adoption in mid- to large enterprises that will be incredibly difficult for Microsoft to dislodge easily (or quickly).
Much has been written about Steve Ballmer’s tenure and leadership at Microsoft, and the jury is still out on what his eventual legacy will be. In my view, the first decade of this new century revealed a Microsoft that was too slow, too sclerotic, and too reactive to effectively respond to the breathtaking pace of change we’ve seen in the IT and consumer technology sectors in the last ten years. I think many would agree that Hyper-V, Windows Phone, and Windows Azure are all impressive products, but they all should have arguably arrived on the market years before they actually did.
Thirty years ago, tech publication headlines were trumpeting the arrival of an upstart company that was compared to the first mammals who appeared around the feet of the soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs. The warm-blooded beast earning those accolades was Microsoft, and the cold-blooded reptiles were IBM, Wang, Digital Equipment, and other gray-bearded tech companies of that generation. Most of those companies have been relegated to the dusty pages of history, and the lucky few (IBM, for example) were forced to reinvent themselves for a new software-driven era. Will Microsoft emerge as a mammal or a future collection of fossils? Only time will tell.