VMware has always been the market leader in terms of functionality in the virtualization space. Initially this was because they were the only real player in the market with every other alternative being either far too specific for widespread adoption or, dare I say it, too hard for your run of the mill system administrator to understand. That initial momentum allowed them to stay ahead of the curve for quite a long time enabling them to justify their licensing fees based on the functionality they could deliver. In recent years however the fundamental features that are required of a base hypervisor have, in essence, reached parity for the all the major players seemingly eliminating the first to market advantage that VMware had been exploiting for the better part of a decade.
However it’s not like VMware wasn’t aware of this. Back when I first started doing large virtualization projects the features of the base hypervisor were very rarely the first things you’d discuss with your local VMware representative. Indeed they were much more focused on the layers on top of the base hypervisor which they could provide. Whilst Microsoft and CITRIX struggled for a long time to provide even the most basic of services like vMotion/Live Migration VMware knew that it was only a matter of time before their base product offered feature parity to theirs. As such VMware now has an extensive catalogue of value add products for environments based on their hypervisor and that’s where the true value is.
Which is why I get surprised when I see articles like this one from ArsTechnica. There’s no doubting that VMware is undergoing a small transformation at the moment having back peddled on the controversial vRAM issue and even taking the unprecedented step of joining OpenStack. However their lead in terms of functionality and value add services for their hypervisor really can’t be matched by any of the current competitors and this is why they can truthfully say that they still have the upper hand. Just take a look at the features being offered in Hyper-V 3.0 and then look up how long VMware has had that feature. For the vast majority of them it’s been available for years through VMware and is only just becoming available for Hyper-V.
Having a feature first might not sound like a big advantage when most people only want your hypervisor but that can be a very critical factor, especially for risk adverse organisations. Being able to demonstrate that a feature has been developed, released and used in the field gives those kinds of customers the confidence they need in order to use that feature. Most organisations won’t trust a new version of Windows until the first service pack is out and it’s been my experience that that same thinking applies to hypervisors as well. Microsoft might be nipping at VMware’s heels but they’ve still got a lot of ground to make up before they’re in contention for the virtualization crown.
Indeed I believe their current direction is indicative of how they see the virtualization market transforming and how they fit in to it. Undeniably the shift is now away from pure virtualization and more into cloud services and with so many big players backing OpenStack it would be foolish of them to ignore it lest they be left behind or seen as a walled garden solution in an increasingly open world. They certainly don’t have the market dominance they used to however the market has significantly increased in the time that they’ve been active and thus complete domination of it is no longer necessary for them to still be highly profitable. VMware will still have to be careful though as Microsoft could very well eat their lunch should they try to rest on their laurels.