Paul Maritz: Pivotal is a bridge to the future

In an exclusive interview, Pivotal CEO Paul Maritz lays out his vision of the next generation of Internet applications and his company's role in helping IT build them

The first thing I had to ask Paul Maritz, CEO of the VMware spin-off Pivotal, was whether he had received any interesting calls from the Microsoft board on the heels of Steve Ballmer's departure. Not surprisingly, Maritz said he would go "nowhere near" that question. But here's why he is considered a potential successor: During his14-year stint at Microsoft, Maritz oversaw the development and marketing of some of the company's most successful products, including Windows 95, Office, and SQL Server, and later presided over four years of impressive growth as CEO of VMware.

Maritz comes under the category of "visionary" CEO, a classification few would associate with Ballmer. But vision is a tricky thing. With Pivotal, Maritz is building a PaaS (platform as a service) for developing the next generation of applications -- infused with big data and the onslaught of events that will flow from the Internet of things. The release date for Pivotal One, which will combine Cloud Foundry and Hadoop among other technologies, is set for the end of 2013. Is Pivotal too far ahead of its time? Or is the moment just right for building a platform to underlie massively interconnected, highly adaptable Internet applications?

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Another question that has dogged Pivotal pertains to the mish-mash of companies from which it was formed, with 1,300 employees who once worked at various EMC and VMware acquisitions -- CetasCloud FoundryGemFireGreenPlum, and SpringSource -- not to mention Pivotal Labs, a high-end Web and mobile development firm. "Startups" pieced together like this don't exactly have a stellar track record. Plus, GE has its hand in, with a $105 million investment and high expectations for Internet-of-things applications that today exist mainly in the imagination.

To find unity in this diversity, Maritz told me that "You have to create a sense of mission and a sense of identity. It's a great group and people are starting to really feel that they're speaking to the future. We're not playing defense here. We really are speaking to important things that will have real meaning. And that's always the best tonic."

For what it's worth, when I visited Pivotal's offices in San Francisco to do this interview, it wasn't the usual earbud-quiet, heads-down environment. The Cloud Foundry group in particular was buzzing with conversation -- maybe energized by IBM's recent endorsement. A couple of days before, the company had announced that the Pivotal CF platform would run on the vCloud Hybrid Service, although Maritz  is quick to note that Pivotal will run across the whole gamut of IaaS clouds (it already runs on Amazon Web Services).

I began the interview with Maritz by revisiting the launch of Pivotal in April:   

Eric Knorr: Two years ago you talked to me about looking toward the next generation of Internet-centric applications. When you launched Pivotal, I figured, oh, that's what he meant.

Paul Maritz: That's basically correct.

Knorr: How long did you have Pivotal in mind as a spin-out? When did you first conceive of how it would come together and that Cloud Foundry would be central to it?

Maritz: I stepped down formally out of VMware at this time last year. I had been thinking about it for the better part of a year before that. There were several points of gestation. The principal one was thinking and saying, "Look, it's becoming clear that infrastructure-level clouds, a la VMware, a la OpenStack, a la whatever else, are going to become the computers of the future, both on-premise and off-premise."

The question is what does that enable that you couldn't do before, because typically, in our industry, you get fundamental change when something in the hardware changes. What really enabled the client server generation?  It was CPU cycles, by historical standards, becoming free. All of a sudden, which you could never have done cost-effectively in a mainframe, you could throw all these CPU cycles at a graphical user interface or, equally importantly, a relational database. All of this quantity suddenly becoming plentiful and free enabled you to think about the different set of applications that could be built.

The thesis is that with infrastructure clouds becoming the new "hardware" (I'm using the word "hardware" incredibly loosely here) there are going to be some things that become plentiful and free by historical standards. What's the impact going to be of that on how we build applications?

The big Internet pioneers -- the Googles and the Facebooks -- they do use the new hardware. The opportunity we saw is to help enterprises build a new generation of value and experiences and applications that use the new hardware, and came to the conclusion that that was a real enough and important enough opportunity that warranted repeating the VMware play.

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