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VMware application acquisitions puzzle IT pros

Enterprises have not embraced the VMware acquisitions of Zimbra, SlideRocket and Socialcast. But that could change if the price is right.

With a troika of acquisitions, VMware has tried to build an applications portfolio that’s more social and flexible than traditional enterprise applications.  But given the massive entrenchment of Microsoft Office, it will likely take years, if ever, to gain traction in IT shops.

VMware Inc. needs the applications it acquired from Zimbra, SlideRocket Inc. and Socialcast Inc. to help the company expand beyond its core virtualization products, particularly in light of increased competition from Citrix Systems and Microsoft. But getting market share in enterprise IT is easier said than done, experts said.

“As of today, this is fact: 100%, no, [VMware’s application-delivery model] is not a topic, not a subject, not an interest,” said Cliff Schaut, a systems engineer at Tushaus Computer Services Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis.

VMware’s confounding acquisition strategy
VMware began its application shopping spree in January 2010 when it acquired Zimbra, an open source email and collaboration software vendor previously owned by Yahoo. But the company’s full intentions for this market didn’t crystallize until this spring, when VMware acquired Socialcast, a social collaboration platform, and SlideRocket, a hosted presentation software provider.

The problem for IT pros is they view these companies and their software as lesser competitors to mature and entrenched Microsoft Office tools, such as Exchange, Outlook and PowerPoint. But VMware said its software can complement Office. For example, Zimbra can work with Exchange, and Socialcast can plug in to Outlook and SharePoint to add more social collaboration to existing platforms, said Stephen Herrod, VMware’s chief technology officer.

"Our goal isn't to go against Microsoft Exchange,” Herrod said. “The goal is to be something different on that front."

Either way, end users are familiar with Office, and few IT shops are willing to change the productivity tools they use each day. For VMware to succeed, it must be patient over the long haul. 

“VMware is playing a little bit of a dangerous game,” said Rob McShinsky, a senior systems engineer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. “[It is] taking lesser-known applications and tying them to a successful infrastructure.”

That strategy may not pay off, especially for IT managers who are still perplexed by VMware’s roadmap. Many found it odd that a virtualization company would acquire disparate technologies that didn’t seem to relate -- to each other or to virtualization. Further, they don’t really see VMware doing anything meaningful with the technologies.

“Zimbra was not a good acquisition for VMware,” Schaut said. ”I liken it to buying a fancy dinner at a supermarket and letting it sit in a freezer.”

VMware applications: Cost is key
What VMware wants is for enterprise customers to use all three of the applications together. The company has begun to develop its application strategy and show how it relates to its virtualization business with Horizon App Manager. And VMware shops might be more likely to use these applications if they integrate with other VMware products.

Whatever VMware’s plans, any IT manager that chooses between Microsoft and VMware applications will probably do so based on cost.

Michael Sadowski, IT manager at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Ill., said VMware’s Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings are not a good fit for his small organization, but a low price might grab his attention.  As a nonprofit organization, Parkview Christian Church receives numerous prices breaks on Microsoft Office products.

“Should [VMware’s] sub-solutions in the cloud be faster, cheaper and more reliable [than Office], we could consider it,” Sadowski said.

VMware’s approach to applications entices companies considering the cloud. Although some enterprises still see cloud computing as too complex and risky, smaller IT shops now realize they don’t have to go with Microsoft’s on-premise software, said Chris Wolf, a Gartner Inc. analyst.  

But if the goal is to push more workloads into the cloud, Microsoft may be in a better position than VMware. Microsoft already has popular business applications and is trying to break into the infrastructure market, McShinsky said. This approach could make it easier for companies to embrace a more cloud-centric data center.

McShinsky’s colleague, Patrick Dyke, agreed. 

“In a lot of cases, technology is driven by business, but VMware has that model of technology driving business in reverse,” Dyke said. “We used Hyper-V virtualization to make Exchange work instead of trying to make an email system work with a particular infrastructure. That seems backwards to me.”

Senior Site Editor Colin Steele contributed to this report.

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