When you see Pat Gelsinger welcome everyone to VMworld Sunday night in San Francisco, don’t be surprised if he looks more like a Survivor contestant than a confident, relaxed CEO.

After all, it’s hard to imagine any EMC Federation (EMC + VMware + Pivotal) manager has gotten much sleep lately given the very real drama afoot.

Activist investor Elliott Management wants EMC to divest itself of its subsidiary VMware. The theory: VMware will generate bigger returns for investors on its own.

Uneasy Peace

While Elliott’s desires aren’t new, its ability to do something about them kicks in on Tuesday — when a truce it made with EMC expires.

Last January Elliott agreed to give EMC Federation boss Joe Tucci nine months to prove his Federation strategy would reap obvious rewards for VMware investors. That hasn’t happened.

Regardless, it doesn’t mean Tucci is ready to cede his position.

He seems certain that he is the best man — with the best strategy — to steer the EMC ship through the turbulent, disruptive waters created through the convergence of big data, cloud, social and mobile.

“As Joe says, you don’t change captains in the middle of a perfect storm.”

It’s a phrase we’ve heard from more than one EMC-insider.

Stay With Me (or Don't)

According to numerous news reports EMC’s board (of which Tucci is the executive chairman) is exploring strategies that would keep it and VMware together.

Under one scenario, EMC buys the 20 percent of VMWare it doesn’t already own. Under other, a reverse merger takes place that enables VMware to buy its parent.

“What we feel is most important is the board’s view that status quo, in an industry that’s changing rapidly, is not an option,” according to Maynard Um, a senior equity research analyst at Wells Fargo.

VMware’s acquisition of EMC would be “catastrophic,” predicted to Rajesh Ghai, a senior technology analyst at Macquarie Group.

And if EMC were to reel VMware back in? “It would hurt VMware,” he said.

The only reasonable thing to do, looking at the situation through a VMware lens, according to Ghai, is to let VMware run as an independent company. That's precisely what Elliott Management was pushing for before it agreed to a truce nearly 9 months ago.

But it’s unlikely EMC and VMware will go their separate ways any time soon, according to Walter Pritchard, a global software analyst at Citigroup. He expects the VMware, EMC drama will hover over VMworld next week

“It’s going to be the buzz in the hallways,” Adam Wray, CEO and President of Basho Technologies told CMSWire.

So Many Distractions

This at a time when Gelsinger needs to plant a compelling vision in the minds of VMworld attendees who have options from Amazon, Microsoft, Citrix and many, many others to consider as well.

But even as he tries to win their attention and convince the crowd that his company provides the best path to the Cloud, they’ll likely be further distracted by other VMware drama: Where is Ben Fathi, the company’s CTO who was evangelizing about vCloud Air at the conference last year?

It was confirmed that Fathi parted ways with the company late last week. Silicon Angle reported that Fathi left in a dispute over vCloud Air and that the development on vCloud Air might have all but ceased.

This news could provide further fuel for the EMC VMware merger fire when you consider that vCloud Air and Virtustream, which EMC purchased in June, promise to deliver some of the same benefits.

Do you need two such offerings in the same company? VMware “cloud father” Bill Fathers has blogged that the two are complimentary but…

Even More Changes

In any case if you’re at VMworld and want to know more, or if you just want a free drink at a nice hotel, go here.

If you do that, you may want to take Ray O’Farrell, who was appointed as VMware’s new CTO and Chief Development Officer yesterday, with you to celebrate. He now replaces Fathi. And, just think, he’ll be on the big stage at VMworld in a few days, how’s that for having enough time to prepare.

We should note that, in addition to Fathi, VMWare has lost other executives of late including former EMC veteran and prominent blogger Chuck Hollis who went to Oracle.

But those departures, according to a former VMware officer, would have never made the spotlight were it not for the EMC/VMware brouhaha.

And, as if all of that isn’t enough, Gelsinger has his own job to worry about. If VMware takes over EMC, he’ll be in a decent position to keep his job; in fact, his kingdom could grow substantially.

But if EMC buys VMware… Tucci, according to everyone we have spoken to, has to go. He no longer has a contract and everyone is getting impatient.

Much of the trouble that has fallen into Gelsinger’s lap may not be of his own making, but he has to find his way out, nonetheless.

The fact that he’ll have to do it in front of a crowd makes this all the more interesting.

Title image by Matthew Wiebe.