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Get to know the history of the VMware-IBM partnership

An agreement between VMware and IBM has led to opportunities and innovation for both companies. However, with respective ties to AWS and Red Hat, the future looks unclear.

Since IBM and VMware partnered in 2016, the two have worked to integrate their cloud and management products. Both companies have benefitted from the agreement, but a rapidly evolving cloud landscape raises questions about long-term viability.

Organizations require a system of open, cloud-agnostic tools to develop, deploy and manage multiple clouds. VMware created such a system when it teamed up with IBM to extend its on-premises management tools vSphere, NSX and vSAN tthe IBM Cloud.

"VMware wants to become Switzerland of cloud management systems," said Roy Illsley, analyst at market research firm Ovum, a division of Informa, based out of Boston.

Extending management services

There have been several developments in the VMware-IBM partnership since the companies signed an agreement. In November 2018, the two companies added greater resiliency to their IBM Cloud service by automating the failover of IBM's services within an IBM Cloud region. The companies based this feature on IBM Cloud infrastructure, VMware software-defined data center management technologies, the Intel Optane DC solid-state drive and IBM's integration services.

IBM was among the first system vendors to support VMware in the late 1990s, and IBM Cloud was the first cloud platform to announce support for VMware's hybrid cloud-focused offerings.
Charles King President and principal analyst, Pund-IT

The partners also integrated their respective management systems. As of 2019, IBM Cloud for VMware Solutions works with IBM Cloud Kubernetes, which provides container management tools. To unify the underlying network, IBM adopted NSX-T Data Center and made vRealize Operations available on IBM Power Systems.

VMware also helped IBM promote Watson AI by using Watson in its customer service support portals.

"It's a close collaboration, one designed to meet the needs of the companies' common enterprise customers," said Charles King, president and principal analyst at Pund-IT, an IT industry analysis firm based out of Oakland, Calif. "IBM was among the first system vendors to support VMware in the late 1990s, and IBM Cloud was the first cloud platform to announce support for VMware's hybrid cloud-focused offerings."

Such teamwork has yielded positive results for both companies. In November of 2018, IBM announced that more than 1,700 organizations adopted IBM Cloud for VMware Solutions.

An increasingly mixed message

Still, the VMware-IBM partnership has its shortcomings, specifically for VMware, and VMware has passed up opportunities to work with IBM in favor of other market leaders.

"IBM has traction in the cloud market, but is well behind market leaders Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google," Illsey said.

To enter the public cloud space, IBM bought SoftLayer in 2013, but SoftLayer hasn't kept pace with its competitors. Its services are expensive and offer fewer configuration options compared to alternatives. Consequently, VMware forged a tight relationship with AWS. In November 2018, VMware and AWS unveiled Outposts, a service that enables companies to run AWS services on premises.

"IBM and VMware have been in a good position to create a service like Outposts," Illsey said, although IBM and VMware haven't announced an equivalent initiative.

The Red Hat effect

IBM has bet heavily on its pending acquisition of Red Hat. However, this puts IBM in more direct competition with VMware, since Red Hat is a Linux server virtualization leader.

"With Red Hat, IBM can push Linux and cloud-native solutions that reduce the dependency that large enterprises now have on VMware," Illsey said.

In addition, VMware works closely with IBM competitors such as Dell Technologies, its parent company.

"One of the clear messages coming out of Dell Tech World conference was the intention of Dell and VMware to ramp up their own integration and optimization efforts," King said. "That doesn't mean that other VMware partners, including IBM, will be bumped out of the loop or become second class citizens, but it may require some extra work to proactively ensure that IBM Cloud customers continue to benefit fully from the company's strategic relationship with VMware." 

As IBM moves into VMware's virtualization wheelhouse with its Red Hat purchase, the two companies must tread carefully to ensure that their partnership doesn't become a mutual hindrance.

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