VMware just upped the ante against Amazon's dominant cloud business by announcing the general availability of its vCloud Hybrid Service, part of its big push towards completely automated and virtualized data centers—i.e., ones that require far less oversight and which provide computing services that are largely independent of the underlying hardware and software.

The new service is a full-fledged "infrastructure as a service" public cloud that will take on the likes of Amazon Web Services, IBM SmartCloud, Rackspace and HP Cloud. IT managers might raise their eyebrows at yet another public-cloud offering, but this one has some serious potential, given VMware's strong place in the virtualization sector. (What's virtualization again? See here.)

But will it be enough to save VMware, let alone fend off the likes of Amazon Web Services and OpenStack?

VMWare Wants To Virtualize You Into The Cloud

Here's what vCloud Hybrid Service has going for it: VMware currently holds a 60% market share in the server virtualization marketplace, which is nothing to sneeze at. VMware is essentially counting on its base in virtualization to bootstrap its existing customers into the new cloud service.

The cloud, after all, is basically still a collection of virtualized servers, albeit with management software with different features. Migrating to the cloud is not as simple as flipping a switch, because of the differences in management software. That's the big benefit VMware claims for the hybrid service—any VMware customer can supposedly expand into the public cloud seamlessly when they need to.

This is all part of VMware's software defined data center strategy, which aims to give IT departments flexibility to configure their data centers and clouds. This is not just virtual servers coming and going as needed in an elastic cloud. Software-defined virtual networking is also part of this broader strategy.

With VMware's hybrid cloud service, software-defined means if you want to run your applications behind a firewall on a private cloud, you're more than welcome to do so—but feel free to expand into the public cloud with little fuss whenever you need. That's what makes this setup a "hybrid." 

The Software Defined Data Center

VMware is not just stopping at networking when they talk about virtualization. It also wants to expand virtualization to storage and IT management tools as well.

With this reliance on a software-defined infrastructure, VMware will need to expose much of its controls beyond the usual cadre of IT administrators: software-defined anything means that developers will have to get more involved. This means a much-more DevOps-centric focus for VMware. Little surprise, then, in VMware's $30 million investment in popular DevOps vendor Puppet Labs back in January and the presence of a lot of DevOps companies on the VMworld conference going on this week in San Francisco.

Dark Skies On The Horizon

As attractive as VMware's hybrid service might be to its existing customers, it's not going to be a cakewalk. First, there's the problem of all the other hypervisors.

In recent years, VMware's customers have grown restless being constrained to the VMware way of doing things. For one, when customers want to run their software with a virtualized environment, they can fire up the requisite virtual servers and run applications on the guest software. But to take real advantage of virtual machine control, developers have to get their software talking to the underlying hypervisor level.

The hypervisor is the layer that actually hold the containers of virtual machines. In the VMware ecosystem, that means VMware ESX and ESXi, and applications should be configured to talk to ESX or any software that manages the hypervisor.

But IT shops that run Linux may also want to use KVM or Xen as their hypervisors and Microsoft users will be attracted to Microsoft's own Hyper-V. In fact, depending on how an application was developed and the costs involved, workloads in a datacenter could be running on multiple hypervisors.

That poses a problem for VMware: they're counting on their existing customers having a homogeneous hypervisor environments.

Another hurdle: It's not just legacy apps from existing virtual systems that are getting pushed out to the cloud—new apps are being coded for the cloud all of the time. VMware also needs to attract developers to build those new apps on their platform. But remember those DevOps coders? They tend to be much more interested in open source toolsets that are fast and less encumbered with licensing overhead. (And their managers have little love for spending more for VMware licenses, unless there's a darn good reason.)

Still, existing VMware customers are a force to be reckoned with, and even if some are restless, they may be committed to VMware tools for one reason or another. If VMware can hold on to them, then the vCloud Hybrid Service will be a strong force of its own in the public cloud sector.

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