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.
I’ve long been of the mind that whilst we’re seeing a lot of new businesses being able to fully cloudify their operations, mostly because they have the luxury of designing their processes around these cloud services, established organisations will more than likely never achieve full cloud integration. Whether this is because of data sovereignty issues, lack of trust in the services themselves or simply fear of changing over doesn’t really matter as it’s up to the cloud providers to offer solutions that will ease their customer’s transition onto the cloud platform. From my perspective it seems clear that the best way to approach this is by offering hybrid cloud solutions, ones that can leverage their current investment in infrastructure whilst giving them the flexibility of cloud services. Up until recently there weren’t many companies looking at this approach but that has changed significantly in the past few months.
However there’s been one major player in the cloud game that’s been strangely absent in the hybrid cloud space. I am, of course, referring to Microsoft as whilst they have extensive public cloud offerings in the form of their hosted services as well as Azure they haven’t really been able to offer anything past their usual Hyper-V plus System Centre suite of products. Curiously though Microsoft, and many others it seems, have been running with the definition of a private cloud being just that: highly virtualized environment with dynamic resourcing. I’ll be honest I don’t share that definition at all as realistically that’s just Infrastructure as a Service, a critical part of any cloud service but not a cloud service in its own.
They are however attempting to make inroads to the private cloud area with their latest announcement called the Service Management Portal. When I first read about this it was touted as Microsoft opening the doors to service providers to host their own little Azure cloud but its in fact nothing like that at all. Indeed it just seems to be an extension of their current Software as a Service offerings which is really nothing that couldn’t be achieved before with the current tools available. System Centre Configuration Manager 2012 appears to make this process a heck of a lot easier mind you but with it only being 3 months after its RTM release I can’t say that it’d be in production use at scale anywhere bar Microsoft at this current point in time.
It’s quite possible that they’re trying a different approach to this idea after their ill-failed attempt at trying to get Azure clouds up elsewhere via the Azure Appliance initiative. The problem with that solution was the scale required as the only provider I know of that actually offers the Azure services is Fujitsu and try as you might you won’t be able to sign up for that service without engaging directly with them. That’s incredibly counter-intuitive to the way the cloud should work and so it isn’t surprising that Microsoft has struggled to make any sort of in roads using that strategy.
Microsoft really has a big opportunity here to use their captive market of organisations that are heavily invested in their product as leverage in a private/hybrid cloud strategy. First they’d need to make the Azure platform available as a Server Role on Windows Server 2012. This would then allow the servers to become part of the private computing cloud which could have applications deployed on them. Microsoft could then make their core applications (Exchange, SharePoint, etc.) available as Azure applications, nullifying the need for administrators to do rigorous architecture work in order to deploy the applications. The private cloud can then be leveraged by the developers in order to build the required applications which could, if required, burst out into the public cloud for additional resources. If Microsoft is serious about bringing the cloud to their large customers they’ll have to outgrow the silly notion that SCCM + Hyper-V merits the cloud tag as realistically it’s anything but.
I understand that no one is really doing this sort of thing currently (HP’s cloud gets close, but I’ve yet to hear about anyone who wasn’t a pilot customer seriously look at it) but Microsoft is the kind of company that has the right combination of established infrastructure in organisations, cloud services and technically savy consumer base to make such a solution viable. Until they offer some deployable form of Azure to their end users any product they offer as a private cloud solution will be that only in name. Making Azure deployable though could be a huge boon to their business and could very well form a sort of reformation of the way they do computing.
In the eyes of corporate IT shops the word virtualization is synonymous with the VMware brand. The reason is this is simple, VMware was first to market with solutions that could actually deliver tangible results to the business. VMware then made the most of this first mover advantage quickly diversifying their product portfolio away from just straight up virtualization into a massive service catalogue that no competitor has yet to match. There’s no denying that they’re the most pricey of the solutions however but many IT shops have been willing to wear the costs due to the benefits that they receive. However in the past couple years or so the competitors, namely Hyper-V and Xen, have started to catch up in features and this has seen many IT shops questioning their heavy investment in VMware.
Undoubtedly this dissatisfaction with VMware’s products has been catalysed by the licensing change in vSphere 5 which definitely gave the small to medium section of the market some pause when it came to keeping VMware as a platform. For larger enterprises it wasn’t so much of a big deal since realistically they’d already licensed most of their capacity anyway. Still it’s been enough for most of them to cast a careful eye over their current spend levels on VMware’s products and seek to see if there’s perhaps a better way to spend all that cash. Indeed a recent survey commissioned by Veeam showed that 38% of virtualized businesses were looking to switch platforms in the near future.
The report doesn’t break down into exactly which platform they’re switching from and to but since the 3 biggest reasons cited are cost, alternative hypervisor features and licensing model (all long time complaints of the VMware platform) it’s a safe bet that most of those people are considering changing from VMware to another platform (typically Hyper-V). Indeed I can add that anecdotally the costs of VMware are enough now that business are seriously considering the platform swap because of the potential savings from a licensing perspective. Hyper-V is the main contender because most virtualization is done with Windows servers and under the typical licensing agreements the hypervisor is usually completely free. Indeed even the most basic of Windows server licenses gives you 1 free virtual machine to play with and it just gets better from there.
But why are so many considering switching from the market leader now when the problems cited have been around nearly half a decade? For the most part it has to do with the alternatives finally reaching feature parity with VMware when it comes to base level functionality. For the longest time VMware was the only one that was capable of doing live migrations between hosts with technology they called vMotion. Xen caught up quickly but their lack of Windows support meant that it saw limited use in corporate environments, even after the support was added in shortly after. Hyper-V on the other hand struggled to get it working only releasing it with Server 2008 R2. With Windows 2003 and XP now on the way out many IT shops are now looking to upgrade to 2008 R2 and that’s when they notice the capabilities of Hyper-V.
Strictly speaking though I’d say that whilst there’s a good few people considering making the jump from VMware to another hypervisor the majority are only doing so in order to get a better deal out of VMware. Like any business arrangement the difference between the retail price and the actual price anyone pays is quite large and VMware is no exception to this rule. I’ve seen quite a few decision makers wave the Hyper-V card without even the most rudimentary of understanding of what it’s capabilities are, nor any concrete plans to put it in motion. There’s also the fact that if you’re based on VMware now and you switch to another platform you’re going to have to make sure all your staff are retrained with the new product, a costly and time consuming exercise. So whilst the switch from VMware may look like the cheaper option if you just look at the licensing there’s a whole swath of hidden and intangible costs that need to be taken into consideration.
So with that all said is VMware staring down the barrel of a inevitable demise? I don’t believe so, their market capture and product lead means that they’ve got a solid advantage over everyone in the market. Should the other hypervisors begin eating away at their market share they have enough of a lead to be able to react in time, either by significantly reducing their prices or simply innovating their way ahead again. I will be interested to see how these figures shape up in say 3/9/12 months from now to see if those 38%ers made good on their pledge to change platforms but I’m pretty sure I know the outcome already.
I make no secret of the fact that I’ve pretty much built my career around a single line of products, specifically those from VMware. Initially I simply used their workstation line of products to help me through university projects that required Linux to complete but after one of my bosses caught wind of my “experience” with VMware’s products I was put on the fast line to become an expert in their technology. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as virtualization then became a staple of every IT department I’ve had the pleasure of working with and my experience with VMware ensured that my resume always floated around near the top when it came time to find a new position.
In this time I’ve had a fair bit of experience with their flagship product now called vSphere. In essence it’s an operating system you can install on a server that lets you run multiple, distinct operating system instances on top of it. Since IT departments always bought servers with more capacity than they needed systems like vSphere meant they could use that excess capacity to run other, not so power hungry systems along side them. It really was a game changer and from then on servers were usually bought with virtualization being the key purpose in mind rather than them being for a specific system. VMware is still the leader in this sector holding an estimated 80% of the market and has arguably the most feature rich product suite available.
Yesterday saw the announcement of their latest product offering vSphere 5. From a technological standpoint it’s very interesting with many innovations that will put VMware even further ahead of their competition, at least technologically. Amongst the usual fanfare of bigger and better virtual machines and improvements to their current technologies vSphere 5 brings with it a whole bunch of new features aimed squarely at making vSphere the cloud platform for the future. Primarily these innovations are centred around automating certain tasks within the data centre, such as provisioning new servers and managing server loads including down to the disk level which wasn’t available previously. Considering that I believe the future of cloud computing (at least for government organisations and large scale in house IT departments) is a hybrid public/private model these improvements are a welcome change , even if I won’t be using them immediately.
The one place that VMware falls down and is (rightly) heavily criticized for is the price. With the most basic licenses costing around $1000 per core it’s not a cheap solution by any stretch of the imagination, especially if you want to take advantage of any of the advanced features. Still since the licencing was per processor it meant that you could buy a dual processor server (each with say, 6 cores) with oodles of RAM and still come out ahead of other virtualization solutions. However with vSphere 5 they’ve changed the way they do pricing significantly, to the point of destroying such a strategy (and those potential savings) along with it.
Licensing is still charged on a per-processor basis but instead of having an upper limit on the amount of memory (256GB for most licenses, Enterprise Plus gives you unlimited) you are now given a vRAM allocation per licence purchased. Depending on your licensing level you’ll get 24GB, 32GB or 48GB worth of vRAM which you’re allowed to allocate to virtual machines. Now for typical smaller servers this won’t pose much of a problem as a dual proc, 48GB RAM server (which is very typical) would be covered easily by the cheapest licensing. However should you exceed even 96GB of RAM, which is very easy to do, that same server will then require additional licenses to be purchased in order to be able to full utilize the hardware. For smaller environments this has the potential to make VMware’s virtualization solution untenable, especially when you put it beside the almost free competitor of Hyper-V from Microsoft.
The VMware user community has, of course, not reacted positively to this announcement. Whilst for many larger environments the problems won’t be so bad as the vRAM allocation is done at the data center level and not the server level (allowing over-allocated smaller servers to help out their beefier brethren) it does have the potential to hurt smaller environments especially those who heavily invested in RAM heavy, processor poor servers. It’s also compounded by the fact that you’ll only have a short time to choose to upgrade for free, thus risking having to buy more licenses, or abstain and then later have to pay an upgrade fee. It’s enough for some to start looking into moving to the competition which could cut into VMware’s market share drastically.
The reasoning behind these changes is simple: such pricing is much more favourable to a ubiquitous cloud environment than it is to the current industry norm for VMware deployments. VMware might be slightly ahead of the curve on this one however as most customers are not ready to deploy their own internal clouds with the vast majority of current cloud users being hosted solutions. Additionally many common enterprise applications aren’t compatible with VMware’s cloud and thus lock end users out of realising the benefits of a private cloud. VMware might be choosing to bite the bullet now rather than later in the hopes it will spur movement onto their cloud platform at a later stage. Whether this strategy works or not remains to be seen, but current industry trends are pushing very hard towards a cloud based future.
I’m definitely looking forward to working with vSphere 5 and there are several features that will definitely provide an immense amount of value to my current environment. The licensing issue, whilst I feel won’t be much of an issue, is cause for concern and whilst I don’t believe VMware will budge on it any time soon I do know that the VMware community is an innovative lot and it won’t be long before they work out how to make the best of this licensing situation. Still it’s definitely an in for the competition and whilst they might not have the technological edge they’re more than suitable for many environments.
Virtualization, a word that started out as one of those industry buzz terms many years ago has managed to find its place in every single organisation I’ve had the pleasure of working for. It’s really quite a nifty technology, being able to run multiple virtual servers on a single physical box which allows you to better utilize your computing resources (and therefore dollars to). I was lucky enough to catch the virtualization bandwagon early on and managed to establish myself as a specialist in the field before most people had a clue how to utilize it properly. Primarily most of my experience was with VMware, since they were the only company doing it right for a very long time. Since then I’ve had a chance to sit down with Microsoft’s answer to ESX in the form of Hyper-V and the differences are quite significant. So in this battle royal-esque show down I’ll pit them against each other and we shall see who comes out the victor.
A great judge of how well a company can do something is how long they’ve been in business. VMware started out in 1998 and delivered their first virtualization product, VMware workstation, a year later in 1999. Microsoft delivered the first version of Hyper-V back in 2008, but we could safely say they were working on it since at least 2007. That gives them 11 and 2 years respectively in the virtualization game, so the advantage of time in the market is going to be handed to VMware.
VMware: 1, Microsoft: 0
One of the biggest considerations that most organisations have when looking to implement virtualization is the cost, as they’re usually trying to save money by implementing it. For the most part they will as long as the design is done properly and they’re not virtualizing for virtualization’s sake. However this is one of the glaring points that plagues VMware, it’s almost ludicrous prices. A single core standard edition license will run you about US$795 and the creme de’la creme costs a whopping US$3,995. That’s not to mention the cost of the central management server either, which will cost you another $4,995 plus the $1,095 required for one year of support. Hyper-V on the other hand is an additional US$28 on top of your existing license fee for Windows Server 2008, which you’re probably going to be buying anyway. The central management server costs about US$1150 which is a darn sight cheaper than VMware. The Hyper-V licensing model also has the advantage of usually being wrapped up with your licensing agreement with Microsoft, flying under the budget radar.
VMware: 1, Microsoft: 1
Now I’m going to get into the nitty gritty of these virtualization solutions: the architecture. Thanks to their marketing departments both of them give you a high level view of their respective virtualization systems.
(Click to enlarge)
Under the hood they’re very similar in the way they’ve designed their solutions and really there’s not much they could have done differently. The biggest difference that’s not clearly highlighted in these marketing speals is that the underlying technology for VMware is basically a modified Red Hat Enterprise Linux kernel that runs directly on the hardware. Hyper-V on the other hand requires that Windows Server 2008 be installed first and then the virtualization run on top of that. While the differences between these two are small, architecturally speaking, the main difference comes from the fact that for Hyper-V you’re running a full blown copy of the operating system in order to get the virtualization benefits. VMware avoids this by using a very slimmed down version of the Linux kernel (the footprint is about 32MB) meaning that more resources are available for the guests. Microsoft has tried to counter this somewhat by introducing a version of Windows Server 2008 called Server Core which removes quite a bit of the cruft, but the large memory footprint and installbase remains.
VMware: 2, Microsoft: 1
The next set of comparisons get a bit fuzzy, since they rely heavily on which version of ESX you end up buying from VMware. For instance if you buy the standard or advanced versions of ESX you’re basically buying Hyper-V at an inflated price, since the feature sets are basically the same. Up until the recent release of R2 for Hyper-V the advanced licensing for ESX would still bring out on top feature wise, still at a premium however. Since VMware has been in the virtualization game for so long they’re no longer focused on what most people would consider core functionality so the more advanced licenses are where they really begin to shine. Things like dynamic resource management and live storage migrations are just simply not available for Hyper-V and have been deal breakers for me in a couple situations. Additionally ESX is very agnostic when it comes to what you install on it, supporting basically every operating system and their respective versions out there. On a pure feature level VMware wins out, but not without incurring some hefty costs.
VMware: 3, Microsoft: 1
One consideration that most people leave out is how easily a virtualization solution will integrate into their environment. VMware is a completely different way of doing things and whilst vSphere is leaps and bounds easier to use than its predecessors it’s still a completely different world to your usual world of stumbling through menu options to fix a problem. Your decent ESX administrator will have to know his way around a Linux command line in order to get some of the more advanced things done (just try to install EMC SAN agents without it, I DARE YOU! :P) and there’s a fair share of problems that will require some obscure commands that can do a heck of a lot of damage if you don’t know what you’re doing. Granted there is quite a good community for all of VMware’s products so you’re not usually left in the dark with no one to hold your hand, but its still no substitute for an ESX administrator who’s dealt with his share of broken ESX environments before. Hyper-V on the other hand has that distinct Microsoft flavour to it and any Windows administrator will be able to administer and troubleshoot an installation without too much hassle. This also has the benefit of not attracting a premium when it comes to hiring in new talent, as us ESX know-it-alls love to charge a bit extra.
VMware: 3, Microsoft: 2
Even though the final score here would lead you to believe that VMware has come out victorious I’m still hesitant to give it the crown of virtualization king (and yes I know I’ve left out Xen but that’s with good reason, I’ve never used the damn thing). The cost of VMware is so massive that I find it hard to convince any shop who’s looking to virtualize to go with it. Sure the name carries a heck of a lot of weight and really if you’re paying the prices on the website you need to talk to a different VMware rep but the point remains that even a single site installation with the basic package will easily run up US$10,000 on top of your current Windows licensing costs. For anyone with a lot of disperate sites that require a virtualization solution you’re much better off with Hyper-V, although ESX really shines in large (100+ servers) data centers. I still recommend VMware to most people since they really are the best, despite their high costs. It would seem as always that you need to carefully analyze your situation and build a solution based on your requirements and not the marketing hyperbole.
Although if you use VMware you’re more likely to get a charming person like myself knocking at your door, and who doesn’t want that? 😉