VMware, Openstack, Nicira and the T Theory

There has been some turmoil lately in the industry when VMware announced that wanted to join the OpenStack community. In the last few days Martin Casado (Nicira co-founder and now Chief Network Architect at VMware) was quoted in a few interviews for the plans VMware has to integrate, evolve and position the Nicira technology. You can read more about it here and here.

I guess we can summarize the bulk of those interviews in the following quote from one of the articles: “Specifically, Casado says we can expect a hypervisor-agnostic network virtualization platform that could be marketed as an independent product.”

This obviously brings up the tedious topic of… can a platform vendor really become platform agnostic? More on this later.

This goes back to a Nicira slide I built a few months, before VMware bought Nicira. This is the slide I am referring to:

Note I was using that slide for a slightly different argument (which, in turns, was going back to my ABC of Lock-In theory). However what this picture was (implicitly) conveying is that, in order to be in a particular spot of the infrastructure, you do need to be agnostic to the stuff that surrounds you.

vSphere, in the context of a server hypervisor, is agnostic to the hardware and to the Guest OS it supports. Similarly, the Nicira NVP needs to be agnostic to the hardware and hypervisors it supports. Or, to steal Martin’s specific way to put it: “…networking is the one thing that you can’t be a unilateralist with. The network touches everything. It’s the network.”

By the way, in the slide above, you can picture vCloud Director, OpenStack (or whatever) instead of vSphere, Xen, KVM (or whatever). Same concept.

Now, let’s go back to the original question: can a platform vendor (e.g. VMware) really become platform (e.g. vSphere and vCloud) agnostic?

Well, after having introduced the theory of The ABC of Lock-In and The Cloud Magic Rectangle I am introducing today, in this post, the theory of the T (or the T theory).

The theory is really very simple and it goes like: it depends where the money flow.

This is how I picture in my head a vendor with a (traditional) platform play and a (new) cross platform play:

The T theory continues by saying: if the vendor is able to make the money in the cross platform play, then the same vendor is willing to concede third party platforms more love (for lack of a better IT word). On the other hand, if the vendor is not able to monetize on the cross platform play, then the same vendor is NOT willing to concede third party platforms more love (and will try to drive and funnel their customers towards the platform play where they can still make money).

Let’s try to make three examples of the T theory.

Did the cross platform play work for IBM? I would say so. IBM is making a lot more profits on the Tivoli product line than it is making on AIX (the mainframe is a tricky story) so they got well past this dilemma of potentially compromising their own platform play by having a cross platform play.

Will the cross platform play work for VMware? Who knows. What we know is that VMware said that there are (a lot of) money to be made in that space though. This doesn’t mean that VMware will push to compromise the platform business with this strategy. However this does tell that, if VMware is able to make money on the cross platform play, potentially compromising the platform play (by working with third parties platform plays) will be worth it. You can go a step ahead and make a parallel between Nicira NVP and DynamicOps but let’s not complicate the discussion too much as there are different nuances there.

Will the cross platform play work for Microsoft? Who knows. What we know is that Microsoft is giving away that piece, arguable a core technology of the data center of the future,  for free. Admittedly I don’t have an MBA but to me this means either one of two things: they will try to move people to the platform (where they are still making money) or they are going to charge for that piece (if they want to be in the true platform agnostic business).

At least this is what the T theory says. I realize, however, there are gray areas in it. I am not going to call out all possible nuances to avoid boring you more than I have done already.


9 comments to VMware, Openstack, Nicira and the T Theory

  • I love the conjecture… very vivid. There is one important caveat. Platform business is always what’s most important for any vendor. It’s what defines their market power and what typically drives the vast majority of the revenue. Virtually everything that large vendors ever do is about protecting and growing the platform business. Very often this leads to their demise, but it is true nevertheless. The only reason why Microsoft has Hyper-V is just so they can sell more Windows. IMHO, the reason why VMWare needs Nicira is to make vSphere more powerful – not to grow it as an independent horizontal business.

    vFabric stuff is a horizontal play like you described and should technically be spun off. Nicira fits directly with vSphere.

    • Massimo

      I don’t think it’s a black or white thing. If you are making 0$ out of the cross play I agree it’s black or white (agreed with the MS example). If you are making >0$ on the cross platform play than there must be a formula that could capture your commitment to be agnostic. Ideally the more you are making on cross platform play the less you care about the platform, the less you are making on the cross play the more you will try to tweak it to funnel customers to the platform play.

      The IBM example is a good one. There is obviously an attempt to protect the mainframe business (there is no question about that) but they have been able to create cross plays where they are making lots of money and profits so this is becoming less of a problem for them. There is the right tension there in the cross plays (Tivoli, WebSphere etc) between protecting a lucrative platform and being agnostic to get credibility. Based on my experience (I spent 15 years there) I have this feeling that the latter attitude is prevailing.

      I’m curious to know what makes you believe the vFabric play is more cross than the Nicira play. We have been doing vSphere specific things for vFabric (like EM4J) so one may consider that as an attempt to funnel vFabric user to the platform (see formula above).

  • The reason I think vFabric is more cross platform is because it’s up the stack from vSphere, whereas Nicira is not. No doubt that VMWare would work to funnel everything towards its platform… but because vFabric is at a different level of the stack, it’s harder… have to get really creative like EM4J.

    In general, I agree with your theory… the disagreement is that platform-focused vs. platform-neutral choice is not just about the money to be made in the cross play; typically it is about the money to be made on the platform as a byproduct of the cross play.

    I.e. VMWare doesn’t just look at Nicira as a standalone product and says “hey, I am gonna make more money selling Nicira if it supports everything, because my market is bigger.” VMWare looks at Nicira and says “hey, if I bundle Nicira with vSphere for free, I’ll protect my platform domination status for another several years.”

    • Massimo

      No doubt that the infra and app layer are (or should be) even more loosely coupled than the components in the infra layer. I am with you.

      However there is space to decouple infra components if you want to (at the cost of losing a bit in integration/efficiency IMO but that’s another point).

      Your last paragraph assumes VMware isn’t going to walk the (public) talks. It will be interesting to see how this will unfold.

      Good discussion. Thanks for chiming in.


  • Michael Nauen

    What about a teleporter software which moves the infra stack and app stack online between different main plattforms like vmware , ms , red hat.
    I thought about this after reading that the chinas teleported staff over 89 miles.

    So the teleporter software takes a running vm from platfform vendor 1 teleported online (Online converter) it to plattform vendor 2.

    The same could be done with virtualized applications.

    Can a cross platform teleported to another cross plattform or one vendor plattform? This is the hardest part.

  • Nicira was quite successful in selling to hyper-scale cloud providers and wasn’t interested in the Enterprise market. I suspect that there will be a lot of problems attempting to move the product downmarket.

    • Massimo

      Possible. However I think that this is a so “immature” market that it doesn’t require a huge force to take something with big potential (but few customers, no defined route to market, etc etc) and change course. At least not as much force as it will take for a 20 years old hardware vendor to change course and become “software defined”. What you think?
      Honestly, I am more concerned about how the “legacy” world is going to digest/operationalize all this… and how it will get there navigating through politics and egos.

    • Of course Nicira was and is interested in the Enterprise market. After all, there *are* Enterprise customers with NVP in production. The issue wasn’t interest — the issue was edge insertion (VMware). That hurdle been cleared and it’s full steam ahead.

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