The GigaOM Interview: Dr. Mendel Rosenblum, Chief Scientist, VMWare

Right before the Christmas holidays I got a chance to catch up with Dr. Mendel Rosenblum, VMWare’s chief scientist and one of the company’s four five co-founders. Rosenblum is also an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, where he leads a group focused on operating systems research. It was at Stanford where Rosenblum and two three of his graduate students — Scott Devine, Edouard Bugnion — came up with the idea that led to VMWare (VMW). Diane Greene joined them as CEO, as well Dr. Edward Wang who attended graduate school at UC Berkeley with both Mendel and Diane, and the company went public in August, garnering a multibillion-dollar valuation that triggered a virtualization frenzy.

Given that VMWare was in a quiet period prior to the release of its quarterly results, my conversation with Rosenblum was quite general. But he did share with me, among other things, the story of how VMWare got started and his outlook for virtualization in 2008. Here are excerpts from the interview:

How did VMWare get started?

I was a professor at Stanford University and we were building a supercomputer called the Flash Machine. I didn’t want to crunch numbers on this machine, but wanted to use virtualization to see if we could run commodity OSes on [it].
We could, and we wrote a paper about it, and that generated a lot of interest, including from Microsoft, who emailed us and wanted us to come and present to them in Redmond. My grad students who worked with me on the project thought we could commercialize the technology, and in 1998 we launched VMWare.

What was the plan when you launched it?

Clearly, the technology was going to be hard to commercialize, and we decided to focus on doing virtualization on the desktop. We worked on the technology and my wife took care of the business side of things.

It seemed to have been a long time in the making.

It took a lot longer than I thought it would take. We released it first on the Linux platform, because we felt the Linux community would adopt it much faster. That proved to be a good move.

Funny now that you have proved it, there is competition coming out of the woodwork. Oracle and Microsoft, for example.

VMWare clearly is going to have competition. Sure it was nice when we were all alone, but we are very different from these other companies. Oracle and Microsoft, for example, are focusing on single machines for now. That’s a nice thing to do. We used to do that. It is good for server consolidation and it is easier and simpler.

What we are doing is basically coming up with a new way to run the data center. So from that perspective, we will continue to have something better than others.

Let’s talk about the data center for a minute. Do you think the whole architecture of the data center needs rethinking?

We went down a rat hole on how we built the data centers. I am not surprised with all the problems we are having with data centers. In my opinion, the architecture has problems because it was built with inferior solutions. What you had was people placing services on servers in a way that led to lightly loaded machines that were idle most of the time. The whole thing was built for peak performance (and not maximum utilization.) Well, idle machines use as much energy as fully utilized machines. The way out of this is to put more on the machines, and get them to be more efficient and take on the work load that will, to some extent, lower the power consumption.

I wrote about pizza boxes becoming a problem, mostly due to low utilization and higher power consumption. It kind of ties in with your thesis.

You have to see them not as boxes but as resources. People are now beginning to utilize virtualization and federate these pizza-box servers. I think if you start to view them as one unit, you can get more utilization out of them. I think in coming months you are going to see a big push to make all servers (and other hardware) inside a data center look more like a single unit. Ironically, if you look at the future — low-end pizza box servers with multicore CPUs running our software — you will start to see the big machine we were building where we got started.

What is your forecast for 2008 from a virtualization standpoint?

We are in a transition period. I think a lot of people dipped their toes in virtualization and got started with server consolidation. They bought into it the “money-saving” argument. In 2008, I expect people to fully embrace virtualization and extend it to other parts of their businesses, even bringing it in-house and using it for optimizing their desktop infrastructure. More importantly, you will start to see the long-term impact of virtualization in the next 12 months.