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VMware angles for control of containerized applications

VMware built its business on its hypervisor, but its new infrastructure offerings are positioned to keep it relevant in the container world.

The client server applications that were modern in the 1990s are being supplanted by data center upstarts in the form of containerized applications. The need for a way to manage these modern applications requires different infrastructure.

VMware recently released two new products that are aimed at these modern applications -- or what the company is calling "cloud-native applications." The products are called Lightwave and Photon. VMware said these offerings will make it easier to run containerized applications.

On the surface, this looks like another attempt by VMware to get close to application developers. VMware's last big developer-friendly move was buying SpringSource, maker of software development tools, back in the days of Paul Maritz. Both SpringSource and Paul Maritz left VMware and landed in EMC's other business, Pivotal. I don't think these new products will end up moving out of VMware and into Pivotal. Lightware and Photon are infrastructure products.

VMware is essentially an infrastructure company. The ESXi hypervisor allows lots of operating system instances -- and their applications -- to run efficiently. It is the applications and data that are the end purpose. We have infrastructure entirely to deliver applications and data to people. Most of VMware's products are used by the infrastructure teams, rather than application developers. This is why many of us scratched our heads when VMware acquired SpringSource in 2009. SpringSource is an application development framework and runtime environment -- quite different to a server virtualization platform. It made a lot more sense when SpringSource left VMware to become one of the foundations of EMC's Pivotal business. The Pivotal business is a set of software that is developer-focused.

What are modern applications?

Since Lightwave and Photon are enablers for modern applications, we'd better define what these are and how they differ from legacy applications. Simply, modern applications are written like cloud applications. They use lots of small units or microservices which communicate over well-defined interfaces, such as APIs, to build an application. Containers are a way to run the code of the microservices without waiting for an operating system to start or having the overhead of a VM for each copy. The microservices each make up a discrete part of the application. The microservices should scale as needed with more copies running when load is high and less running during idle times.

In contrast, legacy applications are made of a small number of VMs -- maybe just one. Everything in the application will run in that one VM. The VM is always sized for the peak load; only the hypervisor can reclaim resources when the application is idle. To make a legacy application modern is no simple job. It requires a complete re-architecture and rewrite of the application. More usually, modern applications address new uses. Legacy applications remain unchanged until they are retired. Modern applications are important as it is new applications that give competitive difference to organizations. Enabling this competitive edge will keep VMware successful.

Introducing Photo and Lightwave

So, what are Photon and Lightwave? Photon is a lightweight Linux distribution, suitable for running containerized applications. Photon directly competes with projects like CoreOS to be the preferred place to run containers, such as Docker. Lightwave is centralized authentication and authorization for Photon and application containers.

Photon is a Linux distribution built by VMware. One of the special parts of Photon is the support for multiple container types. Photon supports Docker, RKT (Rocket) and the Garden container format used by SpringSource. Photon aims to provide a minimal Linux distribution for running containers.

Easily managing containers at scale is the real challenge to solve. If Photon can enable organizations to manage thousands of microservices and hundreds of thousands of container instances, then VMware will have a winner. The issue here is not whose Linux for containers is smallest, but whose will easily work at large scale. Enterprises do not want to have large teams of developers running the infrastructure; the developers should be codifying business function and process.

I find Lightwave very interesting. It has a lot of the same qualities as the vSphere Platform Services Controller (PSC) that is part of vSphere 6. Both have an authentication function that integrates with external identity sources. Both have a certificate services function to establish trust between components. It does look to me like the PSC is a limited implementation of Lightwave and may point the way to the PSC having a much expanded role in the data center of the future. This is where the management of containers at enterprise scale will be enabled.

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