Verizon Cloud is technically innovative, but is it enough?
Verizon already owns a cloud IaaS offering — in fact, it owns several. Terremark was an early AWS competitor with the Terremark Enterprise Cloud, a VMware-based offering that got strong enterprise traction during the early years of this market (and remains the second-most-common cloud provider amongst Gartner’s clients, with many companies using both AWS and Terremark), as well as a vCloud Express offering. Verizon entered the game later with Verizon Compute as a Service (now called Enterprise Cloud Managed Edition), also VMware-based. Since Verizon’s acquisition of Terremark, the company has continued to operate all the existing platforms, and intends to continue to do so for some time to come.
However, Verizon has had the ambition to be a bigger player in cloud; like many other carriers, it believes that network services are a commodity and a carrier needs to have stickier, value-added, higher-up-the-stack services in order to succeed in the future. However, Verizon also understood that it would have to build technology, not depend on other people’s technology, if it wanted to be a truly competitive global-class cloud player versus Amazon (and Microsoft, Google, etc.).
With that in mind, in 2011, Verizon went and made a manquisition — acquiring CloudSwitch not so much for its product (essentially hypervisor-within-a-hypervisor that allows workloads to be ported across cloud infrastructures using different technologies), as for its team. It gave them a directive to go build a cloud infrastructure platform with a global-class architecture that could run enterprise-class workloads, at global-class scale and at fully competitive price points.
Back in 2011, I conceived what I called the on-demand infrastructure fabric (see my blog post No World of Two Clouds, or, for Gartner clients, the research note, Market Trends: Public and Private Cloud Infrastructure Converge into On-Demand Infrastructure Fabrics) — essentially, a global-class infrastructure fabric with self-service selectable levels of availability, performance, and isolation. Verizon is the first company to have really built what I envisioned (though their project predates my note, and my vision was developed independently of any knowledge of what they were doing).
The Verizon Cloud architecture is actually very interesting, and, as far as I know, unique amongst cloud IaaS providers. It is almost purely a software-defined data center. Components are designed at a very low level — a custom hypervisor, SDN augmented with the use of NPUs, virtualized distributed storage. Verizon has generally tried to avoid using components for which they do not have source code. There are very few hardware components — there’s x86 servers, Arista switches, and commodity Flash storage (the platform is all-SSD). The network is flat, and high bandwidth is an expectation (Verizon is a carrier, after all). Oh, and there’s object-based storage, too (which I won’t discuss here).
The Verizon Cloud has a geographically distributed control plane designed for continuous availability, and it, along with the components, are supposed to be updatable without downtime (i.e., maintenance should not impact anything). It’s intended to provide fine-grained performance controls for the compute, network, and storage resource elements. It is also built to allow the user to select fault domains, allowing strong control of resource placement (such as “these two VMs cannot sit on the same compute hardware”); within a fault domain, workloads can be rebalanced in case of hardware failure, thus offering the kind of high availability that’s often touted in VMware-based clouds (including Terremark’s previous offerings). It is also intended to allow dynamic isolation of compute, storage, and networking components, allowing the creation of private clouds within a shared pool of hardware capacity.
The Verizon Cloud is intended to be as neutral as possible — the theory is that all VM hypervisors can run natively on Verizon’s hypervisor, many APIs can be supported (including its own API, the existing Terremark API, and the AWS, CloudStack, and OpenStack APIs), and there’ll be support for the various VM image formats. Initially, the supported hypervisor is a modified Xen. In other words, Verizon wants to take your workloads, wherever you’re running them now, and in whatever form you can export them.
It’s an enormously ambitious undertaking. It is, assuming it all works as promised, a technical triumph — it’s the kind of engineering you expect out of an organization like AWS or Google, or a software company like Microsoft or VMware, not a staid, slow-moving carrier (the mere fact that Verizon managed to launch this is a minor miracle unto itself). It is actually, in a way, what OpenStack might have aspired to be; the delta between this and the OpenStack architecture is, to me, full of sad might-have-beens of what OpenStack had the potential to be, but is not and is unlikely to become. (Then again, service providers have the advantage of engineering to a precisely-controlled environment. OpenStack, and for that matter, VMware, need to run on whatever junk the customer decides to use, instantly making the problem more complex.)
Unfortunately, the question at this stage is: Will anybody care?
Yes, I think this is an important development in the market, and the fact that Verizon is already a credible cloud player in the enterprise, with an entrenched base in the Terremark Enterprise Cloud, will help it. But in a world where developers control most IaaS purchasing, the bare-bones nature of the new Verizon offering means that it falls short of fulfilling the developer desire for greater productivity. In order to find a broader audience, Verizon will need to commit to developing all the richness of value-added capabilities that the market leaders will need — which likely means going after the PaaS market with the same degree of ambition, innovation, and investment, but certainly means committing to rapidly introducing complementing capabilities and bringing a rich ecosystem in the form of a software marketplace and other partnerships. Verizon needs to take advantage of its shiny new IaaS building blocks to rapidly introduce additional capabilities — much like Microsoft is now rapidly introducing new capabilities into Azure.
With that, assuming that this platform performs as designed, and Verizon can continue to treat Terremark’s cloud folks like they belong to a fast-moving start-up and not an ossified pipe provider, Verizon may have a shot at being one of the leaders in this market. Without that, the Verizon Cloud is likely to be relegated to a niche, just like every other provider whose capabilities stop at the level of offering infrastructure resources.