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VMware's growing pains: Free ESXi and VMworld restrictions

Eric Siebert, Contributor

Virtualization Viewpoints is a new, semi-monthly column that discusses current VMware- and virtualization-related trends, news and topics. Here we offer opinions and viewpoints on the competitive, quickly growing and ever-changing virtualization industry with a focus on VMware, the current virtualization market leader, which is in an ongoing battle to remain on top and distance itself from its competitors.


Eric Siebert

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 People are resistant to change, and while change in the technology field generally equals new functionality or product releases, it can also mean that a company has changed product names, licensing structures, or policies regarding attendance at its trade show or how cozy its products are with third-party products.

In this case, the company is VMware, which over the past few months has been on the receiving end of negative press about many of its changes. Most recently, VMware critics have picked up their proverbial pitchforks about a VMware change regarding support for its ESXi hypervisor as well as changes to the fine print on attendance at the company's annual VMworld conference.

Veeam Backup gets a pink slip for supporting free ESXi
To recap the ESXi issue, VMware told Veeam Software Inc., one of its third-party vendors that provides backup software for VMware virtual machines (among other products), that it must discontinue support for the free version of ESXi in its Veeam Backup product.

From VMware's vantage point, Veeam warranted this directive by using a private application programming interface (API) call to access data on ESXi data stores to back up the free version of ESXi and overcome the limitations VMware has placed on it, so VMware asked Veeam to stop supporting ESXi. Veeam reluctantly complied. But without the free backup solution, ESXi may not be useful in anything other than the smallest environment. Veeam's Backup product had provided a low-cost way to effectively back up virtual machine data on free ESXi hosts. Now users have to rely on less-efficient traditional backup methods.

In a recent TechTarget article on  VMware's request for Veeam to discontinue support, news director Alex Barrett pondered VMware's goals for ESXi:

VMware Inc.'s move to restrict support for free ESXi calls into question the company's goal for the free hypervisor: Is it intended as a simple trial or evaluation product that will eventually convert to a paid license, or is it designed for production deployments -- albeit very basic ones?

The answer to this question is in a post from VMware in a blog called the ESXi Chronicles.

VMware made the decision to make VMware ESXi, our next-generation hypervisor, freely available to proliferate the VMware platform and allow administrators to prove its value at no cost.

Free ESXi: For evaluation purposes only?
This statement seems to indicate that the free version of ESXi is simply for evaluation usage and to allow customers to experience the hypervisor so they can purchase the fully functional versions. VMware chooses to deliberately limit the free version of ESXi as outlined below: Although one instance of free VMware ESXi can be managed with the vSphere Client, the free version has two important limitations:

  1. [V]Center cannot manage free ESXi without a vSphere license as its APIs grant only read-only access.

     

  2. Automated scripts cannot change hypervisor settings.

In this case, VMware's actions speak louder than its words. It wants customers to use the paid editions of ESX and ESXi and is trying to steer anyone that might use free ESXi to its Essentials bundle, which target smaller businesses. What VMware is essentially saying is that free ESXi should be used only to become familiar with its bare-metal hypervisor and to help build a business case for paid editions; it is not intended as a free tool for small businesses or production environments.

Now it's important to distinguish between the free version of ESXi and the paid version of ESXi. VMware wants customers to use ESXi; VMware sees it as the hypervisor of the future and will discontinue ESX at some point. This is evident in the same blog post:

  1. In the future, ESXi's superior architecture will be the exclusive focus of VMware's development efforts.

     

  2. New and existing customers are highly encouraged to deploy ESXi. Many Fortune 100 companies have already standardized on the ESXi platform.

So while VMware encourages you to use ESXi, it doesn't want customers to use free ESXi.

But where does that leave customers and partners such as Veeam? For customers, it makes using free ESXi less attractive, and they may instead consider other free hypervisors that do not have these limitations. For partners, it limits their ability to sell products and provide solutions for those who may choose to use free ESXi.

Will VMware's next move be to go after partners that offer technologies for free ESXi that address the lack of vCenter Server support?
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 I thought Veeam 's solution was creative and shouldn't be penalized for its innovative approach. The company saw an opportunity and made its product work with free ESXi. Since Veeam is a VMware partner, it probably didn't want to risk angering VMware or forcing VMware to modify free ESXi to prevent its solution from working, so instead Veeam simply complied with VMware's request.

VMware would never have given ESXi away for free if Microsoft hadn't made its hypervisor Hyper-V available for free. Since VMware was forced to give away ESXi, it chose to severely limit the free product to ensure that it could be used only in smaller environments. Now it seems that VMware fears its partner ecosystem will provide too many enhancements for the free ESXi version, which could cost potential sales of other ESXi editions. Will VMware's next move be to go after partners that offer centralized management technologies for free ESXi that address the lack of vCenter Server (or management suite) support?

I understand that ultimately VMware wants to sell products and services, but the company needs to become more attractive to small and medium-sized businesses, and these kinds of limitations don't help. VMware should be thankful that users choose its product and not a competitor's and that they use free ESXi as a launching pad to other products and services. ESXi is great avenue for customers to experience VMware's superior virtualization product and in many cases would lead to sales in license upgrades, management products, support contracts and services.

So VMware, please lighten up a bit. Your third-party vendors make you and your products stronger, and you should support them as much as you can.

VMworld 2009: It's VMware's party, and she'll cry if she wants to
The second major issue for VMware critics is that the company has added legal verbiage to its contract for its annual conference, VMworld, that states that vendors with competitive products to VMware's are not allowed to market or display those products at VMworld. Additionally, vendors such as Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc. are limited to 10-by-10-foot booths and are not allowed to purchase larger booths reserved for select VMware partners.

This change received a great deal of coverage, and VMware responded by saying that it encourages companies to exhibit products that compete with VMware technology in one fashion but complement it in others. VMware also stated that both Microsoft and Citrix had already signed up as VMworld vendors. While some of Microsoft's products such as operating systems and Microsoft System Center complement VMware's products, Hyper-V does not, so VMware's vague response suggests that Microsoft will not be allowed to show off Hyper-V at VMworld or even talk about it.

VMware bills VMworld as an industry-wide virtualization conference, but in reality it's become all about VMware. The annual VMworld conference started in 2004 when VMware had little competition in the virtualization industry, and back then it truly was about virtualization in general. In recent years, though, VMware has faced increasing competition -- especially from Microsoft – and, as it's not a nonprofit company, has pulled in the reins on VMworld. VMware is perfectly within its rights to do this; it is VMware's show, after all, and VMware can run it however it wants.

The VMworld flak is much ado about nothing. The upcoming show will be just as great as last year's, and new contract verbiage won't change that.
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 Most attendees go to VMworld to see VMware's products and those of third-party vendors that have products that work with VMware's anyway. They are also there to network with other VMware users, vendors and employees as well as to learn from the sessions. I'm sure the verbiage was added to the VMworld contract to give VMware legal respite in case a vendor such as Microsoft decides to turn its booth into a Hyper-V display, or do a live Mythbusters show against VMware. If this happened, VMware would probably want to shut down the booth without facing a law suit. After the poker chip stunt that Microsoft pulled last year and other recent questionable acts, it doesn't surprise me that VMware has taken steps to prevent something a recurrence at this year's show.

As far as VMware restricting Microsoft and Citrix to 10-by 10-foot booths, again it's VMware's show and VMware can run it how it sees fit. It's completely understandable if VMworld wants to reserve the larger booths for its strategic partners that pay larger sponsorship fees. More than 90% of the booths at VMworld are 10 by 10 anyway; it's not as though VMware is punishing Microsoft and Citrix by giving them smaller booths than other vendors.

VMworld may have become VM(ware)world, but that shouldn't surprise anyone; the show is run by VMware; it's not a general conference run by an independent party, as the Chicago auto show is. VMware can name its show whatever it wants and bill it however it wants, but most of us know what it's truly about. While the show features mostly VMware-specific content, it offers general virtualization content as well -- but if you're attending VMworld to learn about Hyper-V, you're at the wrong show.

In my view, the VMworld flak is much ado about nothing. The upcoming show will be just as great as last year's, and some new contract verbiage won't change that.

 

Eric Siebert is a 25-year IT veteran with experience in programming, networking, telecom and systems administration. He is a guru-status moderator on the VMware community VMTN forums and maintains VMware-land.com, a VI3 information site.


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