For the past 2-3 years, VMware has been going through a strategic transformation from a dominant player in a single industry sector (server virtualization) to a company that is engaged in a multi-front battle across multiple areas of disruption – public cloud, containers, software-led infrastructure, etc. Some of these battles, such as software-led infrastructure, are being driven by macro-economic shifts that are driving the cost curves of hardware and software to marginally different rates. This is fundamentally an infrastructure operations challenge. Other battles, such as public cloud, are being driven by a shift in the pace at which business groups need technology to accomplish their goals. This is fundamentally an application developer challenge. At the intersection of those challenges is a concept called DevOps, which is an emerging operational model where companies are trying to synchronize and harmonize the interactions between the Development teams and the Operations teams.
DevOps is not a new concept. It’s been around since the 2010-2011 timeframe and it has spawned a massive community that hosts global events such as VelocityConf and DevOpsDays on a frequent basis. Many of these were started by open-source software communities, so it took awhile before the attention reached the mainstream markets, whose businesses were less aligned to technology-centric product offerings.
If anyone were to attend enough of these events, one might be lead to believe that all future applications will be based on microservices, and all IT groups will merge into a team or sets of teams that practice DevOps principles of collaboration. But the reality is that this evolution faces two significant barriers:
- The evolution of technical skills to understand automation, containers and operations in these new models will take many years to evolve and become widely available.
- Most companies are not greenfield start-ups and they must manage the life-cycles and evolution of their existing application portfolio, while simultaneously planning for the Cloud Native applications that could differentiate their business in the future.
This evolution, which probably applies to 90-95% of all businesses, is why the Cloud-Native Apps announcements from VMware at VMworld 2015 have the potential to create a DevOps Course foundation that may apply to the masses much more than approaches driven by start-ups.
Diagram 1: VMware Cloud-Native Apps Stack (Source: VMworld 2015; Presentation by Kit Colbert)
The elements in [Diagram 1] that are highlighted in blue show the components of the VMware Cloud-Native Apps architecture. Not all of these are new (NSX, VSAN, vSphere, vCloud Air, vRealize), and some have moved from pre-announced to generally-available (AppCatalyst, Code Stream). Of particular importance is the vSphere Integrated Containers and Photon Platform, which are actually made up of several technology elements:
Diagram 2 – VMware vSphere Integrated Containers (Source: VMworld 2015)
vSphere Integrated Containers provides the infrastructure foundation for companies that have an existing installed base of VMware vSphere and associated management tools. It does three important things:
- Within an ESXi host, managed by vSphere/vCenter, it now includes technology that emulates all the speed of running containers on a native Linux machine. From a developer’s perspective, it operates exactly like any other Linux machine and Docker container would operate, from an API, packaging and deployment perspective. From an operations perspective, it’s an ESXi host that has a really fast version of Linux inside. This is using technology from Project Bonneville, Instant Clone and Photon OS.
- Outside the ESXi host, it natively connects to both NSX and VSAN for networking and storage. Instead of introducing completely new technologies and products for those elements, the operations teams can use the native VMware tools that they already understand.
- It clearly defines the demarcation point for Developers and IT Operations, while allowing Operations to provide a more container-friendly environment for the application containers. It removes the need for Developers to be hassled with the nuances of container management.
Diagram 3: VMware Photon Platform (Source: VMworld 2015; Presentation by Kit Colbert)
While VMware Integrated Containers will provide a bridge between existing VM-centric environments and Container-Enhanced environments, the overall VMware architecture will need additional enhancements and frameworks to move towards a Container-Centric model. This is where Photon Platform comes into the architecture. Just providing Development teams with a container-friendly host won’t be enough for the IT Operations team. They will need greater visibility and control of the overall environment to manage containers at large-scale. vSphere is not the right platform for this, as it has limitations on the number of hosts it can manage, and it conceptually looks at the world through VM-centric lenses. The Photon Platform provides two important elements:
- Photon Machine delivers a lightweight, container-centric host platform to run containers. Instead of the full ESXi hypervisor, it uses a stripped-down “microvisor” (or ‘Just Enough Virtualization’). Photon OS is layered on this to deliver a container-centric host that is IT Operations friendly.
- Photon Controller acts in a similar role to what vCenter does for VMs – centralized control, scheduling and resource management. It also provides native API interfaces to application-centric scheduling frameworks such as Kubernetes, Mesos, Cloud Foundry, OpenStack and others.
Photon Platform again provides a distinct line of demarcation between the tools, frameworks and APIs that Developers expect to consume, and the tools that IT Operations needs to maintain high levels of performance and availability for the overall environment.
It is these unique points of demarcation that will help many IT organizations more easily adopt not only container-centric environments, but allow clear areas for collaboration between Application Development and IT Operations teams. In addition to the areas of demarcation, VMware is making a strong push to natively integrate security technologies (Project Lightwave) into the overall architecture. The architecture also highlights that the on-going vendor battles will not necessarily be between VMs and Containers, but between the infrastructure platforms that can manage both, and the Cloud Native application platforms that are attracting developments.