What VMware's bid to join OpenStack really means

VMware has asked to become a member of the foundation governing OpenStack, the open source cloud operating system -- but in a sense, VMware has already joined

The news at VMworld that VMware was applying to join the OpenStack Foundation sounded a little like Microsoft asking to join the Linux Foundation. Really? VMware is embracing a stack of open source bits that does much of what VMware's expensive, proprietary software does? Why would it do that?

The answer lies deep in the nature of OpenStack and in VMware's vision of its own future.

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For one thing, OpenStack is no direct threat to VMware. OpenStack is a framework for managing virtualized compute, storage, and networking resources; it doesn't do any of the virtualizing itself. True, VMware's virtualization management products overlap with OpenStack, but downloading and installing OpenStack from the OpenStack.org website would be like going to Kernel.org and downloading and installing the Linux kernel -- no one wants to try that at home.

Instead, various vendors including Canonical, Rackspace, Red Hat, and Piston Cloud are "packaging" the OpenStack bits and adding value in a manner similar to commercial Linux vendors with their various Linux distributions and support offerings. But at this stage, even those packaged bits are still primarily for experimentation purposes; by most estimates we're still six months to a year away from the production stuff (Piston Cloud claims to be the exception).

Eventually, though, it's gonna happen: Packaged OpenStack versions will compete with VMware's cloud management software and accelerate large-scale deployments of Xen and KVM virtual machines that might otherwise use ESX virtual machines.

But keep in mind that OpenStack software vendors will also be competing with each other -- and more to the point, VMware already understands that its days of hypervisor dominance are numbered. It's no coincidence that DynamicOps, a private cloud software company VMware acquired in July, supports Xen and Hyper-V as well as ESX.

VMware is looking past server virtualization to the whole enchilada of the software-defined data center. And when you think about it, OpenStack's real mission is to provide a common denominator framework for the software-defined data center -- or the private cloud, if you will -- around which industry players can add all kinds of value. Why shouldn't VMware want to get a piece of that?

In fact, it already has in a big way -- by acquiring network virtualization player Nicira, which has led three open source projects crucial to the software-defined data center: OpenFlow, Open vSwitch, and Quantum. The last is OpenStack's Networking component, which will first appear in the Folsom version of OpenStack due to arrive next month.

I recently interviewed Martin Casado, CTO and co-founder of Nicira, and asked him about the bridge built between VMware and OpenStack through the acquisition of Nicira. "This acquisition is actually a statement [by VMware]," he said. "Part of this acquisition is a strategic direction to embrace open standards, embrace open source, and go multihypervisor. Not only will we continue the level of contribution to these projects, we'll most likely accelerate them in certain areas."

You might even say that by paying $1.2 billion for Nicira, VMware bought itself not only leading-edge network virtualization, but also the most influential position possible in OpenStack, because the networking component -- whose development was led by Nicira -- is arguably the most strategic component. It's the linchpin of the software-defined data center.

Will VMware be a good OpenStack citizen? I think so. It serves everyone to maintain interoperability among private cloud solutions -- and there's enormous latitude to differentiate. As Brian Proffitt recently noted, OpenStack differs sharply from Linux in that it has been driven by vendors from the very start. In that consortium's collective effort to bring enterprise customers into the cloud era, welcoming VMware to the club will surely accelerate OpenStack's momentum.

This article, "What VMware's bid to join OpenStack really means," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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