VMworld 2010: Taking Virtual Roads To The Cloud

VMworld 2010 in San Francisco was, by any measure, a great success. The 17,000+ total attendance was up significantly compared to last year's 12,500. A crowd that size does not descend upon a conference unless there is something really compelling going on. If so, what is that? Let's start with VMware's vision of virtualization and then see why customers likely feel compelled to follow the company's path.

David Hill

September 13, 2010

7 Min Read
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VMworld 2010 in San Francisco was, by any measure, a great success. The 17,000+ total attendance was up significantly compared to last year's 12,500. A crowd that size does not descend upon a conference unless there is something really compelling going on. If so, what is that? Let's start with VMware's vision of virtualization and then see why customers likely feel compelled to follow the company's path.

The conference was titled "Virtual Roads. Actual Clouds" and VMware, along with other companies, is pushing the concept that IT is on a three-phase journey. The first is the IT production phase where server virtualization is being used for the first time to consolidate physical servers with one operating and application system onto virtual servers or virtual machines (VMs) that have many instances of operating systems and applications. The obvious end result is better physical resource utilization, such as CPU utilization. The benefit of this server consolidation process is cost savings and that has proven to be advantageous to IT organizations, particularly those under cost pressures.

The second phase of the virtualization journey is business production. This is about quality of service (QoS) where the ability to be able to set and meet service level agreements (SLAs) comes into prominence. A primary benefit of achieving this stage is quality, and that is not a bad thing. However, for IT organizations, it is really about being able to make sure that their initial ventures into virtualization continue to be successful and predictable, allowing them to further extend their use of virtualization.

Frankly, IT organizations first virtualized applications where the risks that would result if poor service occurred would not be work or job threatening. However, they do not want any more exposure to risk than necessary, so improving quality of service is a desirable goal. Moreover, guaranteed responsiveness and reliability are crucial as more sensitive and business critical applications undergo the process of virtualization.

To that point, VMware reported a survey stating that while only 28 percent of applications are virtualized today, customers say that 75 percent is the goal. So a lot more remains to be done. Moreover, VMware's survey found that many customers are now in this second stage of the journey, meaning that QoS is a necessary ingredient in the continued adoption of virtualization.Ah, but improving quality alone is not enough, which brings us to the third phase of delivering IT as a service. Now IT has always been classified as a service organization, but the concept of IT as a service goes far beyond the name and dramatically changes the game. Terms like "service catalogs" and "zero touch infrastructure" are bandied about with the end result being "cloud computing." VMware considers the cloud as an inflection point that will fundamentally transform the delivery and management of IT services.

The goal is to replace static and brittle management frameworks, rigid processes and rudimentary automation with streamlined management enabling agile, self-service IT. As a result, not only are such services more reliable, they are also more flexible.

Sounds great doesn't it? And it is, but it also requires a significant transformation in the ways people work with and deploy IT. A few years ago, Paul Maritz raised the question (roughly stated), is virtualization the last big product of the old IT era or the first new big product of the next IT era? His answer was that it was both, and that seems acceptable, but it also presents a challenge.

By definition, moving from one era to another is a transformation resulting in a significant change process. Progressing through the three virtualization stages affects not only the organization but individuals, as well. For example, employees wonder about losing their job, learning new skills, or if their status and pay will be affected positively or negatively.

A good way of looking at a change process is through the long-recognized Lewin-Schein model, which defines three stages of change: unfreezing, change and refreezing. In the unfreezing stage, key issues include understanding how present conditions that lead to dissatisfaction, how to prevent ignoring information that is necessary to bridge the gap between what is believed now and what needs to be believed for change to occur. The Lewin-Schein also recommends addressing anxiety employees might feel about having to unlearn what had been previously accepted.In the change phases, the Lewin-Schein model suggests that the most important task is to clearly identify gaps between the current and proposed state. In the refreezing stage, the new behavior (in this case, the cloud) becomes the norm, i.e., the change has been institutionalized. Bottom line: in helping IT organizations determine what it will take to move to the cloud, IT vendors that are going to be most successful will have to identify--and directly or subtly address--behavioral issues and habits that have to be altered in order to achieve success, not just emphasize the technical and ROI benefits of their products. Addressing these behavioral issues helps organizations deal with the complexity at the heart of what needs to change.

The IT issue that creates the greatest dissatisfaction and the greatest need for change is complexity. Old-style complexity is inherent in the way that IT organizations evolved as custom-based shops. New-style complexity comes about from the introduction of increasingly dispersed technologies, beginning with scale-out servers but also including mobile devices, such as the Apple iPad. According to VMware, virtualization is key to how these devices will be supported and managed via technologies, including the company's View solution for virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI).

But after a certain level of virtualization, complexity increases and sometimes impedes performance. For example, when running many VMs on a single physical server, I/O bandwidth becomes a limiting factor in processes, such as backup. Other forms of complexity arise as vendors meet customer requirements. For example, to address IT organizations' desire to move VMs freely in order to take best advantage of hardware and business process requirements, VMware developed vMotion. And the list goes on and on.

Note that the increased complexity is a natural consequence of wanting to have more functionality or do more things, such as improved manageability and improved security, and is not due to the deliberate actions of vendors. Complexity is the natural result of the convergence of two immutable IT rules: 1) "you can't do just one thing," and 2) "the law of unintended consequences."

Think of the whack-a-mole carnival game where popping down one mole leads to another popping up. And that other mole was an unintended consequence, which may be desirable or undesirable. A good friend of mine used whack-a-mole to describe the case where once one bottleneck was solved another bottleneck took its place, such as in a server-storage-network environment.If embarking on a journey almost certainly leads to other, often unforeseen challenges, why would IT organizations want to go through the three stages of IT virtualization? Why not stop after the first stage? Well, whacking the first-stage mole derived cost savings, but another mole popped up creating issues, such as manageability and the need for new key functionality. And after that mole is whacked, another one appears, and IT must deal with the consequences. Does it every stop? Probably not, but achieving the final goal of IT as a service hopefully results in less complex, more productive IT environments and user experiences.

As presented at VMworld 2010, VMware's vision seems very appealing, but there are a number of behavioral issues, as well as complexity issues that have to be addressed to successfully take the Virtual Roads to the Actual Clouds. That may seem daunting, but VMware and its clients have a lot of help from its friends. The Solutions Exchange (a.k.a. the trade show portion of the event) contained a large number of vendor solutions, but the mass of attendees crowding the aisles attests to the level of interest. VMware stated that for each dollar of license revenues it receives, company partners in the ecosystem get $15. The virtualization gold rush is on!

That means that VMware doesn't have to have the revenues of some of the largest IT vendors (although it has and likely will continue to do very well) to have a major impact on the IT industry over the next decade. The threats and opportunities that the company poses to other vendors is a subject for another day.

The bottom line is that the journey of the three phases of virtualization leading to IT as a service instantiated in a cloud will not be either short or easy. But if VMware's Maritz is correct in thinking that we are on the cusp of a new IT era, organizations that have started the journey to the cloud cannot retreat nor stay the same.

Disclaimer: At the date of posting, VMware is not a client of the Mesabi Group or David Hill

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