About the only thing financial analysts know about the containerization trend, led by Docker, is that its style of virtualization does not require a hypervisor.

If your entire business model is leveraged around the success of a single component and a completely new technology threatens to render that component obsolete, your first strategy may be to rally your industry around the notion that your component is an indispensable part of the global economy, and that without it, the world itself may falter.

Call this the “petroleum” strategy.

The Other CTO

For VMware, this strategy failed.

So for the alliance of companies VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger referred to Monday as the “EMC Federation,” that means two out of three of its pillars are being undermined by evolution — the other victim being huge, on-premise storage arrays.

Time for a new approach. Strategy No. 2 is a kind of hybridization, a way of quite literally sandwiching the new technology inside the old one, while persuading the customer that such an assembly is vitally necessary — the only way to go.

“As a CIO and as an IT leader, you are responsible for managing the IT and digital assets of an organization,” framed VMware Chief Technology Officer Ray O’Farrell, during VMworld’s keynote yesterday.

O’Farrell is on the spot. As of Monday, he had held this CTO post for five days. And he’s not the only fellow at VMware being called “CTO.”

VMware CTO / CDO Ray O'Farrell

“You worry about efficiency, you worry about security, you worry about compliance,” the new CTO continued.  “Meanwhile, you have these developers in a line-of-business who want to move extremely fast, and they want to demand agility, and they want to change their software very often, and you get a conflict between these two things.”

Note the very deliberate partitioning of virtues here. 

Speaking mainly to VMware customers, O’Farrell knows he’s addressing IT professionals, not software developers. He praises them for delivering security, while framing the containerization movement and the evolution of IT workloads as a noble, yet still invasive, force from the outside.

Call this strategy “Petroleum II.”

“So quite often, you will come to us and you will say... How can we allow you to bridge these two different methodologies of getting software out there — one which is very traditional-based, but very compliant and secure, and one which wants to leverage these new cloud-native applications?”

O’Farrell replaces Ben Fathi, a former Cisco executive who departed VMware just a week earlier — one of a handful of such departures in recent days. Fathi replaced Steve Herrod, who left in January 2013 and whose post would be filled by Fathi a whole year later.

Like so many technology barons before it — DEC, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco — VMware finds itself in a position of having to justify the advantage it holds in a particular market, while a new market threatens to render it irrelevant. That so much of the world’s business logic today rests on COBOL compilers, stands as proof that such a defensive tack may yet be victorious.

The pace of technology is never as swift as the rate of its amortization— how long it takes for its implementers to make full use of it.

VMware is betting the proverbial farm on this fact.  It knows its customers are leveraging new containerized environments on its existing, hypervisor-based infrastructure, and is now making the case for them to continue to do so — even if, on many levels, it just doesn’t make sense.

Something else that might not make sense yet is that Kit Colbert, a VMware vice president, is also being called “CTO.”

Visibility

Colbert explained the virtues of containerization to his audience, fewer and fewer of whom have heard of it for the first time.

VMware CTOs Kit Colbert and Ray O'Farrell at VMworld 2015

He narrated a video that demonstrated Docker’s command-line method that a developer uses to stage a container-based application inside a VMware virtual machine, and noted that while the IT admin sees the VM on her vSphere console, she does not see the containers themselves.

“That’s the fundamental issue,” said Colbert.

O’Farrell went on to explain how containers deployed in a VM are, by design, isolated, providing no insight to any hypervisor-based monitoring system. “There’s a challenge of partial visibility here,” the newer of the two CTOs said.

“But this is not just a management challenge,” he continued. “It also introduces a potential security challenge, because it is very difficult to manage what you cannot see.”

That challenge, and the implied threats behind it, led up to VMware’s announcement Monday of what it calls vSphere Integrated Containers.

It involves the inclusion of VMware’s miniaturized Linux kernel, now called Photon OS, which now will also serve as a kind of visibility agent, communicating container-oriented telemetry exclusively to the vSphere platform.

“We’re making containers first-class citizens on vSphere,” said Colbert.

“That means that you can manage both traditional applications inside of VMs, and next-generation applications inside of containers, side-by-side, fully consistently, on one platform.”

That platform is also being extended, by way of VMware’s vCloud Air, to enable hybrid cloud deployment that utilizes public cloud capacity when and where necessary.  That’s important, because the public cloud VMware would prefer its customers use, is its own.

The Other COO

Financial analysts may have listened to Monday’s keynote the way Charlie Brown listens to his teacher, hearing, “wah-wo-wah-h-h, containers, wo-wahh-wahh-h, vSphere.” But they got the gist of this message: VMware needs an assured revenue stream. If it embraces containerization, it needs to make sure there’s someplace in its vSphere delivery channel where containers pay off.

During an exclusive financial analysts’ session Monday, one financial analyst put that question to VMware’s executive management directly.

“Indeed, we are embracing the open source community as a whole,” responded Carl Eschenbach, VMware’s president and COO, with an opening that at first seemed to be a dodge.

“There is a way to monetize it, and when we deliver that, people pay us for those services,” Eschenbach continued, perhaps stating the obvious.

Eschenbach is on the spot.  He’s one of two people in his organization being called “COO.”

“The way that I think about containers,” he went on, “anything that could accelerate a customer’s business environment, we should embrace. Containers allows people to spin up and run applications much faster, as you know.

“So for us to sit here and not embrace something that drives a business forward, and figure out how to partner with it and run on top of our platform, would be disingenuous to our customers...  We absolutely will continue to embrace all of the open source communities.  From a monetization perspective, some of them we will monetize... and simultaneously, we will monetize them with vSphere.”

Eschenbach praised vSphere as “a consistent, common platform” for running all types of applications side-by-side.  Of course, vSphere is the culmination of VMware’s carefully positioned platform, which rests now on the head of a pin: its ESX hypervisor.

It’s a strategy that could actually work: consistency, reliability, safety.  After all, of the next ten automobiles you spot with your naked eye, what are the chances that three of them are all-electric?

The momentum of technology evolution is nowhere near as inexorable as is too often portrayed.

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Title image by Juskteez Vu.