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VMware on AWS details come into focus at VMworld 2017

Now that VMware Cloud on AWS is generally available, we have a better picture of how the cloud service's storage, networking and pricing will work, as well as what it's missing.

VMware finally pulled back the curtain on VMware Cloud on Amazon Web Services and, with it, put to rest some -- but not all -- lingering concerns over the company's partnership with Amazon. Although we're now privy to how physical hardware, storage and networking works with the cloud service, as well as how much it costs, the service is missing important elements. Let's take a closer look at the inner workings on VMware Cloud on AWS to get a better idea of what it includes, what it doesn't and what could be next for VMware's business strategy.

Servers for rent

VMware on AWS is neither a set of servers that you own, nor a colocation service for your servers. Instead, you rent servers from VMware, which means you have less control than you do over your on-premises servers. VMware takes responsibility for a fair amount of the configuration, as befits a cloud service. These ESXi hosts are physical servers, a bare-metal installation of VMware's hypervisor.

Some diagrams suggest that the ESXi hosts are Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances -- AWS VMs -- but this isn't the case. If ESXi were to run inside an EC2 instance, you would expect reduced performance. With a bare-metal install, VM performance is the same as if the ESXi servers were on premises in your own data center. The physical hosts are quite powerful, with 36 hyperthreaded cores and 512 GB of RAM, and you need a minimum of four hosts to form a starting cluster. The cluster can grow to up to 16 hosts, which is significantly smaller than the maximum cluster size of 64 hosts that vSphere 6.5 supports.

VSAN, NVMe control storage

VMware Cloud on AWS uses vSAN with all-flash non-volatile memory express (NVMe) drives for VM storage. The storage configuration is fixed at 10 TB, plus 3.6 TB of performance tier per ESXi server. This fixed storage per host is a classic constraint for a new hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) product. If you require a lot of storage relative to compute, then you need to pay for extra ESXi servers that will only be lightly loaded. Most HCI vendors offer a range of models with different ratios of compute and storage; I would expect VMware Cloud on AWS to provide some choice before too long.

NSX is the brain

VMware Cloud on AWS also uses VMware NSX for networking, even if you don't use NSX on premises. AWS does most of its smart networking inside the hypervisor rather than in the physical network. The result is that NSX provides the smarts for VMware on AWS, which highlights another important point. VMware retains control of a large part of the configuration of the ESXi hosts, including much of the networking. This split management is a significant departure from on-premises vSphere, where you own the whole stack. VMware will manage the physical hosts and networking, and customers will manage their VMs and the overall capacity of their cluster.

The cost of VMware on AWS

VMware on AWS is neither a set of servers that you own, nor a colocation service for your servers. Instead, you rent servers from VMware, which means you have less control than you do over your on-premises servers.

Pricing has always been critical when it comes to cloud services. The pricing for VMware on AWS begins at $8.37 per host, per hour, which is a little over $6,000 per month. A minimum size cluster consisting of four nodes will cost $24,000 per month, or just under $290,000 per year. There will be better pricing for a longer commitment with reserved instances.

One year will receive a 30% discount, and a three-year commitment will save you 50% off the pay-as-you-go pricing. I expect customers will use the reserved prices for their base-level needs and the hourly rate for more transient load peaks. Handling load peaks is one of the benefits of cloud services, and VMware on AWS is no exception. A customer can request an additional ESXi server for a day, week or month and then return it. The customer only pays for the host so long as they need it. VMware, rather than AWS, handles the billing for VMware Cloud on AWS, and it remains to be seen how that will affect businesses with an Enterprise License Agreement (ELA) with VMware. Will the ELA cover VMware Cloud on AWS, as well as on-premises deployments of VMware products?

Missing pieces

VMware Cloud on AWS lacks deep integration with AWS services. At the initial release, VMware on AWS hosts merely share the same data centers as other AWS services, such as EC2, Simple Storage Service and DynamoDB. This results in lower network latency between applications running on AWS and vSphere-based VMs on VMware Cloud on AWS. Hopefully, in the future, we'll see integration into Amazon Virtual Private Cloud networking, which would allow VMware Cloud on AWS-based VMs to share a subnet with EC2 instances or other AWS services. Also, at time of publication, VMware Cloud on AWS is only available in the AWS U.S. West (Oregon) region, though I imagine other regions will roll out relatively quickly.

VMware on everything

VMware on AWS looks to be the beginning of VMware's new cloud strategy. Although, to my knowledge, there isn't anything in the works just yet, what if VMware offers the same service from other cloud providers? VMware on Virtustream seems like a small shift from the current product offerings on Virtustream. VMware on Google would be another logical follow-up, especially since Google performs well in analytics and artificial intelligence.

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