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VMware's vCloud Air pushes for stake in hybrid cloud market

As VMware attempts to leverage its virtualization base to sell its hybrid cloud offering, can it wrest control from AWS and Azure?

There are battles galore in the cloud market today. AWS, Google and Microsoft all got off to a fast start in the public cloud, but the evolution of enterprise cloud usage is changing the game. VMware is now a contender though they are playing catch-up. To help gain ground on competitors, VMware has partnered with Google in a number of areas, and appears to complement Google's offerings.

The key to the turf war is a statistic from a survey by Canonical of 3,000 IT staff stating more than 60% of operations intend to have a hybrid cloud in the next three years. As a result, the hybrid cloud market is the battleground that will determine the future of clouds, and it's a very hectic place right now.

The main hybrid cloud players

There are offerings for hybrid clouds from AWS and Azure, both of which are moving away from the public to add the private space, as well as open-source OpenStack. Rounding out the major players in the stack war is VMware's vCloud Air, which is venturing into the public space with an established base in the private sector.

Azure appears to be getting much more traction than AWS, with buy-ins from a number of colocation cloud service providers and companies, such as IBM. Azure is running against OpenStack, originally a Rackspace design that moved into the open source domain and attracted a large following.

VMware's vCloud Air is a relative latecomer, and this places the company at some disadvantage similar to Azure, for example.

"Azure has an advantage with a natural base with [Microsoft] users, easing the transition to a hybrid cloud," said Al Sadowski, research director at 451 Research. "VMware is taking a similar approach by looking to mine its existing base of vSphere customers with a hybrid cloud story of its own."

In some ways, VMware is approaching the hybrid cloud market from the opposite direction than most stack vendors. They have a commanding position in the private cloud space, through their mature virtualization offerings. VMware's vCloud Air adds a public cloud stack and has gained some adherents in the telco space while IaaS is making the colocation model an option. As with VMware, it comes with a strong set of tools for storage management.

Azure has a relationship edge when it comes to Microsoft-based installations, but can they translate it into private cloud success? Azure appears to be very focused on telco partners. This makes a great deal of sense if you agree with the hybrid cloud colocation model, where a company's private cloud is colocated with a public cloud provider. The issue driving this model is that compliance and data governance are best achieved if data stays in the private facility.

While AWS is the leader in the public cloud, the company is inexperienced in entering enterprise data centers. This results in the partnerships that are being formed, with VMware building many relationships key to hybrid clouds, including storage offerings with NetApp and ecosystem development with the likes of Veeam and Riverbed. Azure is also partnering aggressively, and OpenStack enjoys a wide base of supporting companies.

AWS and Azure offer lower pricing, but VMware claims they have a considerable lead in cost/performance, which they claim is what really matters to users. VMware's pay-as-you-go-pricing works on a minute-by-minute basis, making vCloud Air an attractive option. AWS appears vulnerable long term in the partnering area. In passing, it's noteworthy that such a statement wouldn't have been made a year ago when AWS looked unconquerable, but the emphasis on hybrid cloud is a game-changer over the next five years.

Google gives vCloud Air a boost

VMware is relatively weak in the scale-out abilities of the public clouds, though the recently announced relationship with Google may resolve that. At the end of January 2015, the companies announced the integration of a number of services, filling out vCloud Air's scorecard in scale-out storage, among other things.

"Google hasn't much enterprise presence today, so from their perspective a vCloud Air partnership offers complementation," Sadowski said.

There are spoilers to watch for. First, Docker-style containers will change the rules for virtualization itself. Whether this is enough to change the struggle of the stack contenders remains to be seen, but Google is driving the containers model aggressively and may leverage it to join the hybrid stack battle.

VMware is partnering with Docker, Google and Pivotal to make containers an option under vCloud Air. Azure is also adopting containers, so it seems that this part of the playing field will be relatively level, though VMware's description of the use of containers within their existing virtualization seems clumsy.

OpenStack offers another option

OpenStack is a potential spoiler, too. HP and others have gambled heavily on OpenStack for their cloud offerings, and there are 15 companies offering distributions, all trying to get a differentiation. The scope of the program is broad and well featured, making OpenStack a strong contender for the hybrid cloud. VMware is following the strategy of "keep your enemies close" and is offering a way to deploy OpenStack on top of vSphere. This may provide an alternative path to a hybrid cloud deployment, where users can switch between vSphere and OpenStack management tools

"Based on studies we've conducted, open source is the way enterprises want to go, but most are not ready for full commitment," Sadowski said. "Enterprises are typically well invested in VMware, making a properly supported mashup of VMware and OpenStack attractive, at least in the short term."

How clear is the future of the cloud?

The most important long-term spoiler is the future of the cloud model itself. The colocated hybrid is an attractive model today because the data is all on one LAN -- but this also describes a public cloud. The issue is data security, and one could argue that public clouds have to meet or exceed HIPAA and other regulatory compliances to be able to function correctly. In other words, all public clouds may be the long-term result for many corporations, and so proprietary public cloud stacks may be the ultimate winner in the cloud stack wars.

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