VMware tantrum shows it's not connecting with cloud buyers or sellers

By Bernard Golden, CIO |  Cloud Computing, VMware

The cloud computing world witnessed a hissy fit last week, as reported in a CRN article from the VMware Partner Exchange. Two specific statements stirred up a hornet's nest of commentary. I want to discuss those statements-but, rather than solely focus on the gossip and chatter they've caused, I'd like to explore what they imply for this new world of cloud computing.

First off, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger said this: "We want to own corporate workload. We all lose if they end up in these commodity public clouds. We want to extend our franchise from the private cloud into the public cloud and uniquely enable our customers with the benefits of both. Own the corporate workload now and forever."

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Then VMware COO Carl Eschenbach said this: "I look at this audience, and I look at VMware and the brand reputation we have in the enterprise, and I find it really hard to believe that we cannot collectively beat a company that sells books."

VMware Looks Entitled and Exasperated

The first statement was a very poor choice of words. If accurately reported, it reflects a dangerous attitude of entitlement on the part of VMware. An ecosystem architecture underpinned by a common technology platform could be a significant advantage to both VMware and its customer base, and this is certainly a potential strength for VMware. To date, this advantage vis-Ă -vis Amazon has been mostly theoretical, with few real-world adopters of this architecture.

Even if the common architecture were a reality, rather than a posited capability, it's foolish to use the term "own" in any public forum where customers are undoubtedly going to learn of it. Nobody, but nobody, wants to be taken for granted-or, worse, perceived as a resource ripe for plundering.

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Frankly, I find it astonishing that someone in such a responsible position would use such language. It's bound to raise hackles in the IT operations organizations that makes up VMware's customer base and cause them to reconsider their commitment to the company and its products.

More remarkable than Gelsinger's attitude of entitlement is the attitude evinced regarding Amazon Web Services. Characterizing Amazon (and by extension, AWS) as a "bookseller" clearly denigrates the service. The exasperation in Eschenbach's voice is nearly palpable: How can a mighty player like VMware be losing to...a bookseller?

VMware Cloud Approach Out of Touch

The message underlying the speeches is clear. Control of IT workloads is slipping from VMware's grasp, and the company's terrified at the prospect. Here's the important question, given VMware's dominance within corporate IT: Why are workloads leaking out of the data center and being deployed in, of all places, a retailer?

To me, the answer comes from the CEO of a large VMware partner quoted in the article as saying, "When we talk to our clients, most of them view Amazon as a test/development environment. What they really want is a private cloud."

Without being disrespectful, it seems clear that many VMware customers do want a public cloud. And, believe me, they're not using AWS for just test and development.

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The challenge faced by VMware and, by extension, its partners is that their customers-the people running corporate data centers and IT operations-are no longer driving the choice of where workloads are placed. Just as there is a new seller in town in the form of AWS, there's a new buyer in town, one whose application deployment decisions are driven by very different criteria than VMware's traditional customers.

In the past, deployment decisions were an afterthought, a byproduct of the location of infrastructure. If you wanted to run an application, you had to put it in the IT-approved environment, either on-premises or at a hosting location. VMware didn't need to convince application development groups of its value; the only group whose decision mattered was the operations group, because its decision made application placement a fait accompli. Not that application groups were particularly happy with this state of affairs-but their opinion meant nothing.

For a company such as VMware, then, the key objective was obvious: Convince IT operations of the virtue of the VMware solution and everything else would fall into line. VMware executed on this plan magnificently. IT operations is an enormous strength of VMware, with nearly monopoly-like levels of penetration and a large and satisfied customer base.

Naturally, those customers would prefer a future computing environment implemented on a VMware foundation. It would make their job easier and cement their place in the world as the stewards of the technology critical to running application workloads.

Today, however, that pesky Amazon offers another application deployment alternative, one not part of the VMware hegemony. Application groups, so long under the sway and control of IT operations, now have an option to choose something other than the established order. They are embracing that option enthusiastically, too. To get an idea of the magnitude of this enthusiasm, see these Forrester developer survey results.

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It's no wonder, really. For years there's been simmering, seething dissatisfaction in application groups about how IT works. Practices optimized for hardware rationing and seemingly indifferent to business needs madden application developers and staff-not to mention their business unit sponsors.

Private Cloud Little More Than Virtualization, Far Cry From AWS

In response to the embrace of AWS by application groups, many IT organizations have developed private cloud plans based on VMware, predictably enough. The problem, just as predictably, is that those plans typically maintain the existing order and continue to focus on the primacy of IT operations priorities.

The response of applications groups to these initiatives is muted. While they might be willing to consider an internally developed alternative to AWS, they have no interest in signing up for a new, shiny set of handcuffs to replace the old set they've just managed to escape.

Just as troubling is the nature of these private cloud initiatives. Forrester recently released a report, The Rise of the New Cloud Admin, which criticizes most private cloud plans as inadequate and feeble. (One author wrote a blistering blog post about VMware's remarks, too, excoriating the company as out of touch and facing disruptive innovation that it doesn't even comprehend).

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The report characterizes most private cloud projects as warmed-over virtualization that falls far short of what is available in AWS. Forrester also notes that some business units, frustrated at the short-sighted private cloud plans of their IT organizations, are starting to implement their own private clouds based on CloudStack or OpenStack.

The biggest challenge for VMware is that its traditional champion and customer, internal IT, is increasingly not the decision-maker regarding application workload placement. The decision is moving, perhaps inexorably, to application development groups. Worse still for VMware is that these groups are not only indifferent to the strengths of the VMware offering; they are often hostile to the IT practices associated with those strengths.

It's pointless to get up and rail about the unfairness of this process, or to denigrate the provider the new buyer is choosing. Worse yet, it's foolish to insult, by implication, those new buyers by disparaging their choice. Oddly enough, someone who isn't your customer today is unlikely to become one when you tell them how stupid they are for making the choices they make.

Far more productive would be to understand what is motivating the application groups to place workloads within AWS and figure out how to deliver that within the VMware ecosystem. Doubling down on the features and messaging that worked in the past doesn't seem to be working today, nor is it likely to work better in the future.

Throwing a public hissy fit isn't going to help, either.

Bernard Golden is the vice president of Enterprise Solutions for enStratus Networks, a cloud management software company. He is the author of three books on virtualization and cloud computing, including Virtualization for Dummies. Follow Bernard Golden on Twitter @bernardgolden.

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