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Verizon Cloud is technically innovative, but is it enough?

Verizon Terremark has announced the launch of its new Verizon Cloud service built using its own technology stack.

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.

No world of two clouds

Massimo Re Ferre’ recently posted some thoughts as a follow-up to his talk at VMworld, about vCHS vs. AWS. That led to a Twitter exchange that made me think that I should highlight a viewpoint of mine:

I do not believe in a “world of two clouds”, where there are cloud IaaS offerings that are targeted at enterprise workloads, and there are cloud IaaS offerings that are targeted at cloud-native workloads — broadly, different clouds for applications designed with the assumption of infrastructure resilience, versus applications designed with the assumption that resilience must reside at the application layer.

Instead, I believe that the market leaders will offer a range of infrastructure resources. Some of those infrastructure resources will be more resilient, and will be more expensive. And customers will pay for the level of performance they receive. There’s no need to build two clouds; in fact, customers actively do not want two different clouds, since nobody really wants to shift between different clouds as you go through an application’s lifecycle, or for different tiers of an app, some of which might need greater infrastructure resilience and guaranteed performance.

I do not believe that application design patterns change to be fully cloud-native over time. First, enterprises have hundreds if not thousands of existing legacy applications that they will need to host. Second, enterprises continue to write non-cloud-native apps, because the typical app is small — it’s some kind of business process app (I call these “paperwork” apps, usually online forms with some workflow and reporting), and it runs on a tiny VM, has few users. It’s neither cost-effective to spend the developer time to make these apps resilient, nor cost-effective to distribute them. Putting them on decently resilient infrastructure is less expensive. Some of these apps should more logically be written on a business process management suite or PaaS (BPMS or bpmPaaS), or on a more general PaaS; that underlying BMPS/PaaS should hopefully functionally provide resilience, but that won’t deal with the existing legacy apps, so there’ll continue to be a need for resilient infrastructure.

When people talk about infrastructure resilience, they’re generally referring to compute resilience in particular — essentially, trying to protect the application from the impact of potential server hardware failure. VMware pioneered two technologies in this space — they call them “HA” (fast detection of physical host failure and automatic restart of the VMs that were running on that host, on some other host) and “vMotion” (live migration of VMs from one physical host to another). However, all the other major hypervisors have now incorporated these features. There’s absolutely no reason why a cloud IaaS provider like AWS, which doesn’t currently support these capabilities, can’t add them, and charge a premium for these VMs.

When people talk about performance consistency, they’re generally referring to storage and network performance. (Most cloud IaaS providers do not oversubscribe either CPU or RAM resources.) Predictable storage performance is a very difficult engineering problem. Companies like SolidFire are offering all-SSD storage to help accomplish this (since it reduces the variability of seek times), and we’re seeing gradual uptake of this technology into cloud IaaS providers. AWS has done “provisioned iops” (PIOPS), allowing customers to buy into a more predictable range of storage performance. There’s no reason why providers wouldn’t offer this kind of predictability for both storage and network — especially when they can charge extra for it.

Now, there are tons of service providers out there building to that world of two clouds — often rooted in the belief that IT operations will want one thing, and developers another, and they should build something totally different for both. This is almost certainly a losing strategy. Winning providers will satisfy both needs within a single cloud, offering architectural flexibility that allows developers to decide whether or not they want to build for application resiliency or infrastructure resiliency.

For more on this: I’ve covered this in detail in my research note, Market Trends: Public and Private Cloud Infrastructure Converge into On-Demand Infrastructure Fabrics (Gartner clients only).

VMware joins the cloud wars with vCloud Hybrid Service

Although this has been long-rumored, and then was formally mentioned in VMware’s recent investor day, VMware has only just formally announced the vCloud Hybrid Service (vCHS), which is VMware’s foray into the public cloud IaaS market.

VMware has previously had a strategy of being an arms dealer to service providers who wanted to offer cloud IaaS. In addition to the substantial ecosystem of providers who use VMware virtualization as part of various types of IT outsourcing offerings, VMware also signed up a lot of vCloud Powered partners, each of which offered what was essentially vCloud Director (vCD) as a service. It also certified a number of the larger providers as vCloud Datacenter Service Providers; each such provider needed to meet criteria for reliability, security, interoperability, and so forth. In theory, this was a sound channel strategy. In practice, it didn’t work.

Of the certified providers, only CSC has managed to get substantial market share, with Bluelock trailing substantially; the others haven’t gotten much in the way of traction, Dell has now dropped their offering entirely, and neither Verizon nor Terremark ended up launching the service. Otherwise, VMware’s most successful service providers — providers like Terremark, Savvis, Dimension Data, and Virtustream — have been the ones who chose to use VMware’s hypervisor but not its cloud management platform (in the form of vCD).

Indeed, those successful service providers (let’s call them the clueful enterprise-centric providers) are the ones that have built the most IP themselves — and not only are they resistant to buying into vCD, but they are increasingly becoming hypervisor-neutral. Even CSC, which has staunchly remained on VMware running on VCE Vblocks, has steadily reduced its reliance on vCD, bringing in a new portal, service catalog, orchestration engine, and so forth. Similarly, Tier 3 has vCD under the covers, but never so much as exposed the vCD portal to customers. (I think the industry has come to a broad consensus that vCD is too complex of a portal for nearly all customers. Everyone successful, even VMware themselves with vCHS, is front-ending their service with a more user-friendly portal, even if customers who want it can request to use vCD instead.)

In other words, even while VMware remains a critical partner for many of its service providers, those providers are diversifying their technology away from VMware — their success will be, over time, less and less VMware’s success, especially if they’re primarily paying for hypervisor licenses, and not the rest of VMware’s IT operations management (ITOM) tools ecosystem. The vCloud Powered providers that are basically putting out vanilla vCD as a service aren’t getting significant traction in the market — not only can they not compete with Amazon, but they can’t compete against clueful enterprise-centric providers. That means that VMware can’t count on them as a significant revenue stream in the future. And meanwhile, VMware has finally gotten the wake-up call that Amazon’s (and AWS imitators) increasing claim on “shadow IT” is a real threat to VMware’s future not only in the external cloud, but also in internal data centers.

That brings us to today’s reality: VMware is entering the public cloud IaaS market themselves, with an offering intended to compete head-to-head with its partners as well as Amazon and the whole constellation of providers that don’t use VMware in their infrastructure.

VMware’s thinking has clearly changed over the time period that they’ve spent developing this solution. What started out as a vanilla vCD solution intended to enable channel partners who wanted to deliver managed services on top of a quality VMware offering, has morphed into a differentiated offering that VMware will take to market directly as well as through their channel — including taking credit cards on a click-through sign-up for by-the-hour VMs, although the initial launch is a monthly resource-pool model. Furthermore, their benchmark for price-competitiveness is Amazon, not the vCloud providers. (Their hardware choices reflect this, too, including their choice to use EMC software but going scale-out architecture and commodity hardware across the board, rather than much more expensive and much less scalable Vblocks.)

Fundamentally, there is virtually no reason for providers who sell vanilla vCD without any value-adds to continue to exist. VMware’s vCHS will, out of the gate, be better than what those providers offer, especially with regard to interopability with internal VMware deployments — VMware’s key advantage in this market. Even someone like a Bluelock, who’s done a particularly nice implementation and has a few value-adds, will be tremendously challenged in this new world. The clueful providers who happen to use VMware’s hypervisor technology (or even vCD under the covers) will continue on their way just fine — they already have differentiators built into their service, and they are already well on the path to developing and owning their own IP and working opportunistically with best-of-breed suppliers of capabilities.

(There will, of course, continue to be a role for vCloud Powered providers who really just use the platform as cloud-enabled infrastructure — i.e., providers who are mostly going to do managed services or one sort or another, on top of that deployment. Arguably, however, some of those providers may be better served, over the long run, offering those managed services on top of vCHS instead.)

No one should underestimate the power of brand in the cloud IaaS market, particularly since VMware is coming to market with something real. VMware has a rich suite of ITOM capabilities that it can begin to build into an offering. It also has CloudFoundry, which it will integrate, and would logically be as synergistic with this offering as any other IaaS/PaaS integration (much as Microsoft believes Azure PaaS and IaaS elements are synergistic).

I believe that to be a leader in cloud IaaS, you have to develop your own software and IP. As a cloud IaaS provider, you cannot wait for a vendor to do their next big release 12-18 months from now and then take another 6-12 months to integrate it and upgrade to it — you’ll be a fatal 24 months behind a fast-moving market if you do that. VMware’s clueful service providers have long since come to this realization, which is why they’ve moved away from a complete dependence on VMware. Now VMware itself has to ensure that their cloud IaaS offering has a release tempo that is far faster than the software they deliver to enterprises. That, I think, will be good for VMware as a whole, but it will also be a challenge for them going forward.

VMware can be successful in this market, if they really have the wholehearted will to compete. Yes, their traditional buying center is the deeply untrendy and much-maligned IT Operations admin, but if anyone would be the default choice for that population (which still controls about a third of the budget for cloud services), it’s VMware — and VMware is playing right into that story with its emphasis on easy movement of workloads across VMware-based infrastructures, which is the story that these guys have been wanting to hear all along and have been waiting for someone to actually deliver.

Hello, vCHS! Good-bye, vCloud Powered?

Ecosystems in conflict – Amazon vs. VMware, and OpenStack

Citrix contributing CloudStack to the Apache Software Foundation isn’t so much a shot at OpenStack (it just happens to get caught in the crossfire), as it’s a shot against VMware.

There are two primary ecosystems developing in the world: VMware and Amazon. Other possibilities, like Microsoft and OpenStack, are completely secondary to those two. You can think of VMware as “cloud-out” and Amazon as “cloud-in” approaches.

In the VMware world, you move your data center (with its legacy applications) into the modern era with virtualization, and then you build a private cloud on top of that virtualized infrastructure; to get additional capacity, business agility, and so forth, you add external cloud IaaS, and hopefully do so with a VMware-virtualized provider (and, they hope, specifically a vCloud provider who has adopted the stack all the way up to vCloud Director).

In the Amazon world, you build and launch new applications directly onto cloud IaaS. Then, as you get to scale and a significant amount of steady-state capacity, you pull workloads back into your own data center, where you have Amazon-API-compatible infrastructure. Because you have a common API and set of tools across both, where to place your workloads is largely a matter of economics (assuming that you’re not using AWS capabilities beyond EC2, S3, and EBS). You can develop and test internally or externally, though if you intend to run production on AWS, you have to take its availability and performance characteristics into account when you do your application architecture. You might also adopt this strategy for disaster recovery.

While CloudStack has been an important CMP option for service providers — notably competing against the vCloud stack, OnApp, Hexagrid, and OpenStack — in the end, these providers are almost a decoration to the Amazon ecosystem. They’re mostly successful competing in places that Amazon doesn’t play — in countries where Amazon doesn’t have a data center, in the managed services / hosting space, in the hypervisor-neutral space (Amazon-style clouds built on top of VMware’s hypervisor, more specifically), and in a higher-performance, higher-availability market.

Where CloudStack has been more interesting is in its use to be a “cloud-in” platform for organizations who are using AWS in a significant fashion, and who want their own private cloud that’s compatible with it. Eucalyptus fills this niche as well, although Eucalyptus customers tend to be smaller and Eucalyptus tends to compete in the general private-cloud-builder CMP space targeted at enterprises — against the vCloud stack, Abiquo, HP CloudSystem, BMC Cloud Lifecycle Manager, CA’s 3Tera AppLogic, and so on. CloudStack tends to be used by bigger organizations; while it’s in the general CMP competitive space, enterprises that evaluate it are more likely to be also evaluating, say, Nimbula and OpenStack.

CloudStack has firmly aligned itself with the Amazon ecosystem. But OpenStack is an interesting case of an organization caught in the middle. Its service provider supporters are fundamentally interested in competing against AWS (far more so than with the VMware-based cloud providers, at least in terms of whatever service they’re building on top of OpenStack). Many of its vendor contributors are afraid of a VMware-centric world (especially as VMware moves from virtualizing compute to also virtualizing storage and networks), but just as importantly they’re afraid of a world in which AWS becomes the primary way that businesses buy infrastructure. It is to their advantage to have at least one additional successful widely-adopted CMP in the market, and at least one service provider successfully competing strongly against AWS. Yet AWS has established itself as a de facto standard for cloud APIs and for the way that a service “should” be designed. (This is why OpenStack has an aptly named “Nova Feature Parity Team” playing catch-up to AWS, after all, and why debates about the API continue in the OpenStack community.)

But make no mistake about it. This is not about scrappy free open-source upstarts trying to upset an established vendor ecosystem. This is a war between vendors. As Simon Wardley put it, beware of geeks bearing gifts. CloudStack is Citrix’s effort to take on VMware and enlist the rest of the vendor community in doing so. OpenStack is an effort on the part of multiple vendors — notably Rackspace and HP — to pool their engineering efforts in order to take on Amazon. There’s no altruism here, and it’s not coincidental that the committers to the projects have an explicit and direct commercial interest — they are people working full-time for vendors, contributing as employees of those vendors, and by and large not individuals contributing for fun.

So it really comes down to this: Who can innovate more quickly, and choose the right ways to innovate that will drive customer adoption?

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Common service provider myths about cloud infrastructure

We’re currently in the midst of agenda planning for 2012, which is a fancy way to say that we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to write next year. Probably to the despair of my managers, I am almost totally a spontaneous writer, who sits down on a plane and happens to write a research note on whatever it is that’s occurred to me at the moment. So I’ve been pondering what to write, and decided that I ought to tap into the deep well of frustration I’ve been feeling about the cloud IaaS market over the last couple of months.

Specifically, it started me in on thinking about the most common fallacies that I hear from current cloud IaaS providers, or from vendors who are working on getting into the business. I think each of these things is worthy of a research note (in some cases, I’ve already written one), but they’re also worth a blog post series, because I have the occasional desire to explode in frustrated rants. Also, when I write research, it’s carefully polite, thoughtfully-considered, heavily-nuanced, peer-reviewed documents that will run ten to twenty pages and be vaguely skimmed, often by mid-level folks in product marketing. If I write a blog post, it will be short and pointed and might actually get the point through to people, especially the executives who are more likely to read my blog than my research.

So, here’s the succinct list to be explored in further posts. These are things I have said to vendor clients in inquiries, in politely measured terms. These are the blunt versions:

Doing this cloud infrastructure thing is hard and expensive. Yes, I know that VMware told you that you could just get a VCE Vblock, put VMware’s cloud stack on it (maybe with a little help from VMware consulting), and be in business. That’s not the case. You will be making a huge number of engineering decisions (most of which can screw you in a variety of colorful ways, either immediately or down the road). You will be integrating a ton of tools and doing a bunch of software development yourself, if you want to have a vaguely competitive offering for anything other than the small business migrating from VPS. Ditto if you use Citrix (Cloud.com), OpenStack, or whomever. Even with professional services to help you. And once you have an offering, you will be in a giant competitive rat race where the best players innovate fast, and the capabilities gap widens, not closes. If you’re not up to it, white-label, resell, or broker instead.

There is more to the competition than Amazon, but ignore Amazon at your peril. Sure, Amazon is the market goliath, but if your differentiation is “we’re not like Amazon, we’re enterprise-class!”, you’re now competing against te dozens of other providers who also thought that would be a clever market differentiation. Not to mention that Amazon already serves the enterprise, and wants to deepen its inroads. (Where Amazon is hurting is the mid-market, but there’s tons of competition there, too.) Do you seriously think that Amazon isn’t going to start introducing service features targeted at the enterprise? They already have, and they’re continuing to do so.

Not everything has to be engineered to five nines of availability. Many businesses, especially those moving legacy workloads, need reliable, consistently high-performance infrastructure. Howeve, most businesses shouldn’t get infrastructure as one-size-fits-all — this is part of what is making internal data centers expensive. Instead, cloud infrastructure should be tiered — one management portal, one API, multiple levels of service at different price points. “Everything we do is enterprise-class” unfortunately implies “everything we do is expensive”.

Your contempt for the individual developer hugely limits your sales opportunities. Developers are the face of the business buyer. They are the way that cloud IaaS makes inroads into traditional businesses, including the largest enterprises. This is not just about start-ups or small businesses, or about the companies going DevOps.

Prospective customers will not call Sales when your website is useless. Your lack of useful information on your website doesn’t mean that eager prospects will call sales wanting to know what wonderful things you have. Instead, they will assume that you suck, and you don’t get the cloud, and you are hiding what you have because it’s not actually competitive, and they will move on to the dozens of other providers trying to sell cloud IaaS or who are pretending to do so. Also, engineers hate talking to salespeople. Blind RFPs are common in this market, but so is simply signing up with a provider that doesn’t make it painful to get their service.

Just because you don’t take online sign-ups doesn’t mean your cloud is “safe”. Even if you only take “legitimate businesses”, customers make mistakes and their infrastructure gets compromised. Sure, your security controls might ensure that the bad guys don’t compromise your other customers. But that doesn’t mean you won’t end up hosting command-and-control for a botnet, scammers, or spammers, inadvertently. Service providers who take credit card sign-ups are professionally paranoid about these things; buyers should beware providers who think “only real businesses like you can use our cloud” means no bad guys inside the walls.

Automation, not people, is the future. Okay, you’re more of a “managed services” kind of company, and self-service isn’t really your thing. Except “managed services” are, today, basically a codeword for “expensive manual labor”. The real future value of cloud IaaS is automating the heck out of most of the lower-end managed services. If you don’t get on that bandwagon soon, you are going to eventually stop being cost-competitive — not to mention that automation means consistency and likely higher quality. There’s a future in having people still, but not for things that are better done by computers.

Carriers won’t dominate the cloud. This opinion is controversial. Of course, carriers will be pretty significant players — especially since they’ve been buying up the leading independent cloud IaaS providers. But many other analyst firms, and certainly the carriers themselves, believe that the network, and the ability to offer an end-to-end service, will be a key differentiator that allows carriers to dominate this business. But that’s not what customers actually want. They want private networking from their carrier that connects them to their infrastructure — which they can get out of a carrier-neutral data center that is a “cloud hub”. Customers are better off going into a cloud hub with a colocated “cloud gateway” (with security, WAN optimization, etc.), cross-connecting to their various cloud providers (whether IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, etc.), and taking one private network connection home.

Stay tuned. More to come.

VMware vCloud Global Connect and commoditization

At VMworld, VMware has announced vCloud Global Connect, a federation between vCloud Datacenter Provider partners.

My colleague Kyle Hilgendorf has written a good analysis, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on this as well.

The initial partners for the announcement are Bluelock (US, based in Indianapolis), SingTel (Singapore), and SoftBank Telecom (Japan). Notably, these vendors are landlocked, so to speak — they have deployments only within their home countries, and who probably will not expand significantly beyond their home territories. Consequently, they’re not able to compete for customers who want multi-region deployments but one throat to choke. (Broadly, there are still an insufficient number of high-quality cloud providers who have multi-region deployments.)

These providers are relatively heavyweight — their typical customers are organizations which are going through a formal sourcing process in order to procure infrastructure, and are highly concerned about security, availability, performance, and alignment with enterprise IT. I expect that anyone who chooses federation with Global Connect is going to apply intense scrutiny to the extension provider, as well. At least because the vCloud Datacenter architecture is to some extent proscriptive, and has relatively high requirements, in theory all federation providers should pass the buyer’s most basic “is this cloud provider architected in a reasonable fashion” checks.

However, I think customers will probably strongly prefer to work with a truly global provider if they need truly global infrastructure (as opposed to simply trying to globally source infrastructure that will be used in unique ways within each region) — and those with specific regional needs are probably going to continue to buy from regional (or local) providers, especially given how fragmented cloud IaaS sourcing frequently is.

It’s an important technical capability for VMware to demonstrate, though, since, implicitly, being able to do this between providers also means that it should be possible to move workloads between internal vClouds and external vClouds, and to disaster-recover between providers.

Importantly, the providers chosen for this launch are also providers who are not especially worried about being commoditized. Their margin is really made on the value-added services, especially managed services, and not so much from just providing compute cycles. Each of them probably gains more from being able to address global customer needs, than they lose from allowing their infrastructure to be used by other providers in this fashion.

I do believe that the core IaaS functionality will be commoditized over time, just like the server market has become commoditized. I believe, however, that IaaS providers will still be able to differentiate — it’ll just be a differentiation based on the stuff on top, not the IaaS platform itself.

In the early years of the market, there is significant difference in features/functionality between IaaS providers (and how that relates to cost), but the roadmaps are largely convergent over the next few years. Just like hosters don’t depend on having special server hardware in order to differentiate from one another, cloud IaaS providers eventually won’t depend on having a differentiated base infrastructure layer — the value will primarily come higher up the stack.

That’s not the say that there won’t still be difference in the quality of the underlying IaaS platforms, and some providers will manage costs better than others. And the jury’s still out on whether providers who build their own intellectual property at the IaaS platform layer, vs. buying into vCloud (or Cloud.com, some future OpenStack-based stack, or one of many other “cloud stacks”), will generate greater long-term value.

(For further perspective on commoditization, see an old blog post of mine.)

Citrix buys Cloud.com

(This is part of a series of “catch-up” posts of announcements that I’ve wanted to comment on but didn’t previously find time to blog about.)

Recently, Citrix acquired Cloud.com. The purchase price was reported to be in the $200m+ vicinity — around 100x revenues. (Even in this current run of outsized valuations, that’s a rather impressive payday for an infrastructure software start-up. I heard that VMware’s Paul Maritz was talking about how these guys were shopping themselves around, into which some people have read that they ‘had’ to sell, but companies that sell themselves for 100x trailing revenues don’t ‘have’ to be doing anything, other than sniffing around to see if anyone is willing to give them even more money.)

Cloud.com (formerly known as VMOps) is one of a great many “cloud operating system” companies — it competes with Abiquo, OpenStack, Eucalyptus, Nimbula, VMware (in the form of vCloud Director), and so on. By that, I mean that you can take Cloud.com and use it to build cloud IaaS of your very own. While you can use Cloud.com to build a private cloud, the reason that Cloud.com commanded such a high valuation is that it’s currently the primary alternative to VMware for service providers who want to build public cloud IaaS.

Cloud.com is a commercial open-source vendor, but realistically, it’s heavily on the commercial side, not the open-source side; people running Cloud.com in production are generally using the licensed, much more featureful, version. Large service providers who want to build commodity clouds, particularly on the Xen hypervisor (especially Citrix Xen, rather than open-source Xen), are highly likely to choose Cloud.com’s CloudStack product as the underlying “cloud OS”. We’re also increasingly hearing from service providers who intend to use Cloud.com to manage VMware-based environments (using the VMware stack minus vCloud Director), as part of a hypervisor-neutral strategy.

Key service provider customers include GoDaddy and Tata Communications. A particular private cloud customer of note is Zynga, which uses Cloud.com to provide Amazon-compatible (and thus Rightscale-compatible) infrastructure internally, letting it easily move workloads across their own infrastructure and Amazon’s.

Citrix, of course, now has a significant commitment to OpenStack, in the form of Project Olympus, their planned commercial distribution. The Cloud.com acquisition is nevertheless complementary, though, not competitive to the OpenStack commitment.

Cloud.com provides a much more complete set of features than OpenStack — it’s got much of what you need to have a turnkey cloud. Over time, as OpenStack matures, Cloud.com will be able to replace the lower levels of its software stack with OpenStack components instead. For Citrix, though (and broadly, service providers interested in VMware alternatives), this is a time-to-market issue as well as a solution-completeness issue.

In my conversations with a variety of organizations that are deeply strategically involved with OpenStack and working in-depth on the codebase, consensus seems to have developed that OpenStack is about 18 months from maturity (in the sense that it will be stable enough for a service provider who needs to depend on it to run their business to be able to reasonably do so). That’s forever in this fast-moving market. While Swift (the storage piece) is currently reliable and in production use at a variety of service providers, Nova (the compute piece) is not — there are no major service providers running Nova, and it’s acknowledged to not be service-provider-ready. (Rackspace is running the code it got via the acquisition of Slicehost, not the Nova project.) Service providers want to work with proven, stable code, and that’s not Nova right now — that’s Cloud.com. (Or VMware, and even there, people have been touchy about vCloud Director.)

It’s not that the service providers have a deep interest in running an open-source codebase; rather, they are looking for an alternative to VMware that is less expensive. Cloud.com currently fills that need reasonably well.

Similarly, it’s not that most of the members of the OpenStack coalition are vastly interested in an open-source cloud world, but rather, that they realize that there needs to be an alternative to VMware’s ecosystem, and it is in the best interests of VMware’s various competitors to pool their efforts (and for vendors in more of an “arms merchant” role, to ensure that their stuff works with every ecosystem out there). Open source is a means to an end there. Cloud.com’s stack, whether commercial or open source, is only a benefit to the OpenStack project, in the long term.

This acquisition means something pretty straightforward: Citrix is ensuring that it can deliver a full service provider stack of software that will enable providers to successfully compete against vCloud — or to have hypervisor-neutral solutions peacefully coexist, in a way that can be easily blended to meet business needs for a broad range of IaaS solutions. While Citrix would undoubtedly love to sell more XenServer licenses, ultimately the real money is in selling the rest of its portfolio to service providers — like NetScaler ADCs. Having a hypervisor-neutral cloud stack benefits Citrix’s overall position, even if some Cloud.com customers will choose to go VMware or KVM or open-source Xen rather than Citrix Xen for the hypervisor.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Cloud.com’s Amazon-compatible APIs (and thus support of RightScale’s functionality) is also tremendously useful for organizations seeking to build Amazon-compatible private clouds at scale. No one else has really addressed this need, and VMware (in an infrastructure context) has largely targeted the market for “dependable”, classically enterprise-like infrastructure, rather than explored the opportunities in the emerging demand for commodity cloud.

In short, I think Cloud.com is a great buy for Citrix, and VMware-watchers interested in whether or not their vCloud service provider initiative is working well should certainly track Cloud.com wins vs. vCloud wins in the service provider space.

Is early consolidation bad for cloud innovation?

So, we’ve just seen Verizon buy Terremark and Time Warner Cable buy NaviSite. All contemplation of the deals themselves aside, is consolidation at this stage of the market good for the progress of the cloud IaaS market?

I’m inclined to think not.

We are still pretty early in the cloud IaaS market. While most service providers in the space — especially those betting on an enterprise-oriented, VMware-based strategy — have visions and product roadmaps that converge a few years out, there is still an aggressive race to introduce new features and capabilities into cloud IaaS platforms. In other words, everybody needs engineering time, and lots of it. But they also need the fire in the belly that makes people not just do their jobs, but really push themselves — to feel a genuine sense of inexorable pressure to get things out ahead of the competition, a sense of passion for what they’re doing, and the knowledge of the freedom to go do the right thing with a minimum of encumbrance.

Acquisitions, especially ones that require significant integration work, can really extinguish fire in the belly. Verizon and Terremark, for instance, need to consolidate their systems, platforms, and roadmaps. That’s engineering energy that’s not being devoted to building awesome new stuff. (Yeah, if you have enough money, you can try to do that in parallel with your integration, but you lose precious time and willpower and creative efforts on the part of your best people, who only have so many things they can do with their day.) NaviSite is getting wedged into a cable company, which is a massive culture shock that creates a distraction, potentially sends their best people job-hunting, and requires rethinking their strategy and the engineering that should support it.

VMware really needs their service providers to be awesome, because that’s key to their hybrid vCloud strategy. These acquisitions take out two of the most innovative VMware-based providers. I suspect the market’s not really aware of this, especially in the case of NaviSite. NaviSite has never really publicized some of the things that differentiate their cloud IaaS platform and make it pretty cool — for instance, NaviSite allows VM oversubscription and prioritization coupled with auto-scaling, which is great for enterprise applications (which generally require low resourcing, as opposed to, say, consumer-facing Web properties that fully consume scale-out resources).

Just one service provider being really aggressive about adding new features to its platform spurs the others to follow suit — the slower companies may need the idea (or want to wait until someone else has done it to see how it goes), and then respond competitively. The more service providers are innovative, the more the others have an invisible flogger spurring them on. So if the pacers slow down, so to speak, the entire market potentially does.

While Amazon is innovative, and its pace of feature introductions is extremely rapid, those features are also split out between Amazon’s multiple constituent customer types. And many of the VMware-based providers habitually dismiss Amazon as a competitor and thus do not feel as internally pressured to competitively match their feature set. (This is arguably a potentially fatal mistake, especially as Citrix gets serious about its ecosystem.) Consequently, though, Amazon’s not a substitute pacer for innovation amongst the VMware-based providers.

You can argue that acquisitions potentially give innovative companies a lot more money to work with, which can significantly accelerate their roadmap and business plan. This might even be the case for Verizon/Terremark in the long term. But it still comes with a near-term cost, in almost all cases.

Cloud companies, whether service providers or software, have gotten snatched up rapidly over the last two years. How many of those companies have turned out to have accelerated, not diminished, innovation under new ownership?

The (temporary?) transformation of hosters

Classically, hosting companies have been integrators of technology, not developers of technology. Yet the cloud world is increasingly pushing hosting companies into being software developers — companies who create competitive advantage in significant part by creating software which is used to deliver capabilities to customers.

I’ve heard the cloud IaaS business compared to the colocation market of the 1990s — the idea that you build big warehouses full of computers and you rent that compute capacity to people, comparable conceptually to renting data center space. People who hold this view tend to say things like, “Why doesn’t company X build a giant data center, buy a lot of computers, and rent them? Won’t the guy who can spend the most money building data centers win?” This view is, bluntly, completely and utterly wrong.

IaaS is functionally becoming a software business right now, one that is driven by the ability to develop software in order to introduce new features and capabilities, and to drive quality and efficiency. IaaS might not always be a software business; it might eventually be a service-and-support business that is enabled by third-party software. (This would be a reasonable view if you think that VMware’s vCloud is going to own the world, for instance.) And you can get some interesting dissonances when you’ve got some competitors in a market who are high-value software businesses vs. other folks who are mostly commodity infrastructure providers enabled by software (the CDN market is a great example of this). But for the next couple of years at least, it’s going to be increasingly a software business in its core dynamics; you can kind of think of it as a SaaS business in which the service delivered happens to be infrastructure.

To illustrate, let’s talk about Rackspace. Specifically, let’s talk about Rackspace vs. Amazon.

Amazon is an e-commerce company, with formidable retail operations skills embedded in its DNA, but it is also a software company, with more than a decade of experience under its belt in rolling out a continuous stream of software enhancements and using software to drive competitive advantage.

Amazon, in the cloud IaaS part of its Web Services division, is in the business of delivering highly automated IT infrastructure to customers. Custom-written software drives their entire infrastructure, all the way down to their network devices. Software provides the value-added enhancements that they deliver on top of the raw compute and storage, from the spot pricing marketplace to auto-scaling to the partially-automated MySQL management provided by the RDS service. Amazon’s success and market leadership depends on consistently rolling out new and enhanced features, functions, capabilities. It can develop and release software on such aggressive schedules that it can afford to be almost entirely tactical in its approach to the market, prioritizing whatever customers and prospects are demanding right now.

Rackspace, on the other hand, is a managed hosting company, built around a deep culture of customer service. Like all managed hosters, they’re imperfect, but on the whole, they are the gold standard of service, and customer service is one of the key differentiators in managed hosting, driving Rackspace’s very rapid growth over the last five years. Rackspace has not traditionally been a technology leader; historically, it’s been a reasonably fast follower implementing mainstream technologies in use by its target customers, but people, not engineering, has been its competitive advantage.

And now, Rackspace is going head to head with Amazon on cloud IaaS. It has made a series of acquisitions aimed at acquiring developers and software technology, including Slicehost, JungleDisk, and Webmail.us. (JungleDisk is almost purely a software company, in fact; it makes money by selling software licenses.) Even if they emphasize other competitive differentiation, like customer support, they’re still in direct competition with Amazon on pure functionality. Can Rackspace obtain the competencies it will need to be a software leader?

And in related questions: Can the other hosters who eschew the VMware vCloud route manage to drive the featureset and innovation they’ll need competitively? Will vCloud be inexpensive enough and useful enough to be widely adopted by hosters, and if it is, how much will it commoditize this market? What does this new emphasis upon true development, not just integration, do to hosters and to the market as a whole? (I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, although I suspect it’ll go into a real research note rather than a blog post.)

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VMware buys Zimbra

Hot on the heels of a day of rumors, VMware announced the acquisition of Zimbra, the open-source email platform vendor previously purchased (and up until now, still owned by) Yahoo!.

It’s a somewhat puzzling acquisition. Its key strategic thrust seems to be enabling the service provider ecosystem. Most service providers (i.e., hosters) already offer email as a service — although today, they primarily offer Hosted Exchange. Other platforms — Open-Xchange, OpenWave, Critical Path, Mirapoint, etc. — are used for more commodity email services. Relatively speaking, Zimbra doesn’t have as much traction in the service provider space, and VMware’s service provider ecosystem is not gasping for lack of reasonable platforms on which to offer email SaaS.

The email SaaS space is super-competitive. Businesses have come to the realization that email is a commodity that can be safely outsourced, and that huge cost savings can be realized by outsourcing it; this is driving rapid growth of mailboxes delivered as SaaS, but it’s also driving aggressive price competition. That, in turn, drives service providers to push their underlying email software vendors for lower license costs.

One has to speculate, then, that this acquisition is not just about email. It’s about the broader platform strategy, and the degree to which VMware wants to own an entire stack.

My colleagues and I are working on publishing a Gartner position (a “First Take”) on this acquisition, so I’m sorry to be a bit brief, and cryptic.

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