Cloud Wars: Why History Will Repeat Itself

November 1, 2011 by Pat O'Day

Battles over formats and standards in the technology industry aren’t new. Whether it was e-mail, word processing, graphical images or even some more current like the apps on your smart phone, each new innovation typically starts out somewhat proprietary and incompatible.

Today we live in a world where a lot of those battles have been fought and won while some are only starting to heat up. Formats tend to resolve themselves through standards so that things like e-mail and web pages "just work." That or at a minimum the technology we use evolves and hides it all from us via various forms of automatic conversion. In a world where so many technologies seem to get along – why shouldn’t clouds? The answer isn’t so simple and, as is often the case, history has a way of repeating itself.

Different Approaches
Just as email initially emerged inside of private datacenters, so has cloud infrastructure. It was initially based on virtualization technology and, depending on what kind of IT shop was involved, you most likely ended up on VMware if you were trying to make your core datacenter more efficient by virtualizing legacy servers; Xen if you had a significant Linux or Java developer presence where the need to rapidly provision test and develop machines was important; and maybe even Citrix if you were using Metaframe for serving up applications to remote users or thin clients. For some companies, cloud adoption started outside the corporate datacenter inside of the VMware vCloud or Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Different Platforms
These approaches initially evolved into distinctly different virtualization technologies. VMware’s vSphere platform grew up in the heart of enterprise data centers so it focuses more on performance, manageability, stability and uptime. Amazon’s platform is directed at rapid provisioning of instances that are great for developers and dynamic workloads. While they both promote the concept of virtual machines as the building blocks of their clouds, the formats are very different. Amazon breaks its workloads into images called Amazon Machine Images (AMIs), which contain an operating system image from a limited library, memory and CPU resources. VMware uses a format called a Virtual Machine Disk (VMDK) that contains not only the memory, but also a more flexible operating system image that can be based on any x86 and, as you can tell by the name, the disk storage itself. With Amazon’s AMI model, any additional storage outside of the operating system image must be kept on a separate disk image on the network using either their S3 or EBS storage solutions. With VMware’s VMDK, because the disk is included, you can move everything around. They call this a vApp.

Competitors
It also goes without saying that the war for cloud market share has started and is being waged in earnest. Given the amount of dollars at stake, it makes complete sense. The major players all want their share of the anticipated $241 billion that corporations are predicted to spend in the cloud over the next 9 years (according to Forrester Research). This kind of growth opportunity resembles a land grab of significant size and proportion that fosters only self-serving forms of compatibility.

History Will Repeat Itself
As we now know from the email platform wars, once the bulk of companies picked their initial email standard to implement, the green fields of opportunity started to dry up. As a result, email platform vendors found themselves in a situation where they could only gain market share by taking customers away from each other. This caused them to start offering various forms of migration services. The initial offerings were assistance with your email strategy, which was closely followed by professional services teams that could perform the migration for you. At some point, the professional services teams developed tools to make the migrations easier and those tools ended up being packaged and offered directly to end users.

We are starting to see this trend emerge in the cloud. Most Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers have either a toolkit or a professional service offering that helps customers migrate from one SaaS provider to another. You can see this with Salesforce and Netsuite. VMware and Amazon are no exception. Amazon offers a tool that allows you to convert your VMDK virtual machines into AMI images. VMware has an extensive professional services offering and numerous channel partners that can help an Amazon customer migrate to a vCloud or back to their internal VMware vSphere environment if a customer found themselves locked in to the Amazon cloud.

Interoperability and Open Standards
It’s clear that more help is on the way, but there may be some solutions that can help in the short term. The Distributed Management Task Force, also known as the DMTF, is a standards body that represents 160 member companies and organizations and more than 4,000 active participants crossing 43 countries. They have endorsed and are actively promoting the Open Virtualization Format (OVF) standard for Virtual Machines(VMs) and Virtual Applications (vApps). OVF support is the foundation of the VMware vCloud and VMware vSphere 4.1. Workloads can be quickly converted to OVF and then moved or copied between clouds as the needs dictate. This gives the IT department and power users the ultimate flexibility as they begin to adopt a cloud-enabled approach to IT.

Which One Is Best?
Choosing the best cloud platform is a lot like deciding to upgrade from a tube television to a flat screen. It can be hard to choose when you see all of the different flat screen television technologies like DLP, LED, Plasma and LCD but once you’ve made the leap to High Definition, regardless of which technology you chose, it still puts you light years ahead of where you were with your old TV set.

How to Choose
The most important thing is to determine what the right use cases are for your organization to adopt cloud. For some companies that may be to make their existing IT resources more agile and efficient so placing some of the workloads they have already virtualized using VMware into a public vCloud make the most sense. For other companies that may need to perform thousands of calculations on a moment’s notice, consuming that capacity from a commodity cloud like Amazon’s EC2 might be the best fit. The real key is that this landscape is evolving and changing rapidly. Any workload placed into the cloud should conform to existing IT practices and should be able to be de-provisioned, redirected or moved as the cloud market matures and the understanding of which clouds best fit which workloads becomes clearer.