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Can VMware's vCloud Air overcome AWS stickiness?

By utilizing containers to forge new services, VMware's public cloud offering might just be able to make a dent against AWS.

There can be little doubt that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the largest public cloud provider, the biggest heavyweight that every contestant will be measured against. VMware's vCloud Air is one of the newer entrants into the public cloud. What should vCloud Air do to be successful in the public cloud? Can vCloud Air learn from AWS or should VMware chart a new path?

What makes vCloud Air special is it is built on the same hypervisor most companies are already using. This means familiar technologies and concepts for enterprise IT departments. Many other public clouds use different hypervisors, often one based on Xen or KVM. There is a significant change involved to move a VM from one hypervisor to another. Moving from in-house vSphere to these other hypervisors is a big job, while moving from in-house vSphere to vCloud Air is a matter of copying VMs across the network. VMware will continue to leverage this point of difference.

The addition of disaster recovery as a service using vSphere Replication makes vCloud Air even more enticing to a VMware-based shop. Also, vCloud Air has the same VM availability and resiliency as on-premises vSphere. Applications designed to run on top of vSphere will run on top of vCloud Air. This comfort factor is the core value proposition for vCloud Air, but is it enough for vCloud Air to succeed? After all, AWS is very successful despite being wholly unfamiliar to enterprise IT.

Maturity of AWS platform makes it difficult to surpass

Most public clouds expect customers to develop applications and architectures around the cloud platform. These cloud platforms also deliver a lot of application services to make application development easier and faster; this includes things such as database and load balancers as a service. Particularly on AWS, customers write applications to use these services. New applications written for cloud platforms are at the forefront of many new businesses. Applications written for one cloud provider's services usually require major changes to work on another cloud. This kind of application dependency makes cloud providers very sticky for customers. Application services are consumed by software developed specifically for those services.

AWS has become hugely successful by making it easy for developers to make applications that run on AWS. It has been at the forefront of application development for some time. New business models have sprung up around AWS, particularly for applications consumed by smartphones. Many modern application development constructs are based on AWS's ideas about how Web applications should be written. These applications are not designed to run on enterprise IT. Many cloud developers consider applications that require enterprise infrastructure to be outdated and legacy. New applications are developed with Web methods and often reside on AWS or other public clouds.

How can VMware sway businesses to its side?

If VMware wants to make vCloud Air attractive to developers, then it needs to make developing applications easier. One way is to add application services. This seems to be the next move for vCloud Air as there is an object storage service coming soon. Object storage was one of the first services that AWS launched in 2006. Many developers are very familiar with the vast range of application services that AWS offers. To be interesting to developers, vCloud Air will need to add a lot more services at a rapid pace. While developers can build load balancers and message queues, why would they want to? Having easy access to these services makes application development faster and leaves more time to concentrate on solving business problems.

I suspect VMware is taking a different approach. The VMware cloud native applications team is looking to containers to be the enabler for developers. Container technology like Docker and Rocket allow application code to run in a much smaller object than the usual VM. Containers appeal to developers as a reliable place to run their code. There is still a lot of work to be done on developing infrastructure and management for containers. VMware has released two parts of its container story. Photon is a Linux distribution for running containers. Lightwave is an authentication and authorization system for containers. Neither of these components is specifically offered on vCloud Air; since they really just need VMs, there is no barrier to using them with vCloud Air.

A chance with containers

It is important to realize that containers do not negate the value of application services. Applications that run in containers still need services like load balancers and persistent storage. Of course, many of these services can be delivered with containers. There is a large library of containers on the DockerHub, a repository of downloadable containers. One of the interesting aspects is that containers could be used by cloud providers to deliver application services to their customers. I suspect that VMware will favor a model where customers make their own services with containers. This fits in with the new open source and no lock-in approach that VMware has taken on this year.

New techniques are largely applied to solving new problems. Applications that solved old problems usually remain unchanged. I hope that VMware will use containers to add application services to vCloud Air. I hope that we will see a veritable explosion of application services on vCloud Air. Then developers will have a reason to want vCloud Air. Without application services, vCloud Air runs the risk of being the place that old applications go to serve their remaining days.

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