With a tag line of "Virtual Roads. Actual Clouds," it's easy to understand that this year's US VMworld was wall-to-wall cloud computing. Nevertheless, it was striking how cloud-centric the expo floor at VMworld was. Based on my meetings, chance discussions, and floor wandering, here is my admittedly impressionistic take on the event:
Slideshow: Six Cool Features in vSphere 4.1
The Cloud Gets Real
I spoke with a number of vendors who are bringing what I would consider second-generation offerings to market. By this I don't mean version 2.0 of an already-existing cloud computing product; rather, I mean vendors providing products that fill in a cloud computing stack to make it more consumable in real-world environments. Products that offer security, monitoring, management, etc. to make a VMware-based cloud environment more successful were in evidence everywhere.
In this category I would put VMware's new vShield product, which offers a suite of products designed to simplify security by delivering a set of virtual appliances to offer VPN, DHCP, L3 networking capabilities. In his post on vShield (highly recommended), Chris Hoff speculates that part of the motivation for the product family was VMware's realization that relying on an ecosystem to deliver a basket of products was falling short of a complete security solution, both from a functionality and a customer comfort perspective. I would also add a complexity factor, because it's never easy to knit together products from different vendors into a unified whole.
Overall, the delivery of these second-generation product indicates that customer acceptance of cloud computing is moving to the practical stage. The past had a lot more vision; now the emphasis is on delivering products that actually provide functionality necessary for implementing a cloud.
The Cloud Turns into Bits
I was struck by how much storage was emphasized on the expo floor, particularly in comparison with network. Of course, my attention might have been focused by the ongoing battle for 3Par by HP and Dell (incidentally, the people on duty in the 3Par booth had really big smiles plastered on their faces, caused no doubt by visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads).
The proliferation of storage solutions illustrates how cloud computing is almost unfailingly accompanied by big data. The growth of data, along with the issues posed by the "skinny straw" of limited bandwidth to external clouds, will pose challenges for enterprises as they migrate to cloud applications. One approach to solving this challenge is, of course, keeping all the data on-premise, but that then poses a different set of challenges with respect to capital investment and storage management complexity.
The Cloud Causes Pain
While the initial section of this post notes that a second generation of products is coming out designed to complete the software stack, one thing that wasn't discussed much was the process and organizational challenge caused by implementing a cloud computing environment. One can't really blame the vendors, of course: their revenues depend on convincing people that their products make implementation simple. Also, our industry has a long-established tradition of focusing on technology to the exclusion of other factors; the problems those factors cause seem to impress everyone as unexpected and novel -- every time they occur. And occur they will.
The fact is that every new technology wave is inevitably -- and invariably -- accompanied by disruption and strife, as organizational winners and losers are sorted out. Cloud computing will be no different and one can expect it to be even bloodier, as it is likely to be accompanied by headcount and budget shrinkage, a first for most technology developments, which heretofore have usually resulted in budget accretion. If you think that the usual jockeying over who gets to be top dog, organizationally speaking, when a new technology comes down the pike is bad, wait until there's a game of budgetary musical chairs going on, with the loser not being relegated to the nether regions of organizational importance, but to the front pages of Monster.com.
A striking and humorous (in a rather mordant fashion) example was provided by Randy Bias during an Internet TV panel he and I participated in (you can view the panel here). He shared an example of a company that implemented a private cloud complete with end user self-service. Despite this streamlined capability, the operations group insisted that end users forward a request for resources, which was then provisioned by an ops person who filled out the self-service portal. This featherbedding was finally ended, but it took a couple of years to sort out. These are the kind of things that occur when innovation confronts human nature.
The Cloud is Where Your Desktop Lives
I couldn't get over how many desktop-hosting products I saw. It's clear that desktop virtualization -- whether VDI, app virtualization, or something else -- and cloud computing are a natural fit. The logic -- and ROI-- is inescapable. Managing end point desktops is such a pain and so labor-intensive that I'm surprised the entire technology world hasn't risen up and demanded remote desktop capability.
One booth I wandered by was offering a drawing for a free laptop, which the offeror suggested would be perfect for a member of my family. I turned down the opportunity because I couldn't face the extra work I (in my second job as family sysadmin) would bear due to another always breaking, needs patching, requires antivirus machine. If the guy in the booth really wanted to win my loyalty, he would have offered to come to my house and remove a desktop or two!
Home-delivered personal desktops -- now there's a cloud app that makes sense.
The Cloud Jumps the Shark
There is no doubt, cloud computing has jumped the shark -- or, at least, it has caused every vendor to perform an act of cloudwashing by recasting their products as focused on cloud computing. Every product at the show, no matter how implausible the claim, was characterized as cloud-oriented. Frankly, it would have been refreshing to see a vendor proclaim that its products don't do a thing for cloud computing, but help enormously in running a standard consolidated server environment, since that is the real world most VMworld attendees actually inhabit.
I saw examples of vendors rather desperately trying to portray their products as critical to cloud computing. With some of them, the phrase "lipstick on a pig" comes to mind. Just because a product can be used in some kind of interaction with a cloud-based application does not make it a cloud computing product -- just as someone applying lipstick while driving a car does not make lipstick a transportation product.
The Cloud is Here to Stay
What was palpable at the show was the feeling that cloud computing represents the next platform shift in computing -- that it marks the transition from one form of implementing computing services to a new form, based not on a different hardware form factor (the change present in all previous platform shifts) but on a different software construct that abstracts and makes agile the previous generation of hardware -- and that difference implies a mind-boggling change in the role computing will play in our lives and businesses.
Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of "Virtualization for Dummies," the best-selling book on virtualization to date.