Will “hybrid public” cloud give VMware its mojo back?

It may be a cliche, but it’s also true: VMware(s vmw) is at a crossroads. The company, which dominates server virtualization in company data centers, continues to struggle for credibility in the cloud — and it’s new plans for hybrid vCloud service haven’t done much to fix that.

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger

This “VMware vCloud Hybrid Service,” to be run from partner data centers and sold by VMware’s channel but managed by VMware, is slated to come online later this year. VMware pitches it as a way for the company’s 480,000 customers “to reap the benefits of the public cloud without changing their existing applications while using a common management, orchestration, networking and security model.”
But VMware faces a raft of challenges.

Too little too late?

First of all, many of those VMware customers have already tested out other cloud offerings — Amazon(s amzn) Web Services, or a third party service provider, MSP or hosting company, they’re already in the cloud in some way. AWS, for better or worse, has set the bar high when it comes to pay-as-you-go services for developers and higher-level managed services for other constituencies in the enterprise. Even solid VMware shops are testing out alternatives for different use cases, as we learned in last week’s big PayPal does/doesn’t dump VMware for OpenStack kerfuffle.

Fractious partner relationships

Second, VMware’s existing cloud partners — including big service providers and telcos offer VMware’s vCloud Director as an option but several of those partners, speaking privately, aren’t wild about it. They say it’s under-featured and expensive. And, nearly all of them offer other — less costly — options to vCloud Director including OpenStack.
The fact that VMware will pick certain service providers over others to host this cloud means it will tick off others.
“Nearly all of the service providers were already hedging on vCloud Director because of cost issues and now all those that weren’t already hedging are aggressively moving in that direction,” said an exec with one vCloud Director partner who requested anonymity for obvious reasons.
Forrester(s forr) cloud analyst James Staten agreed that VMware stepped on “xSP” partner toes, but said it had no choice.  “None of its partners — not even the vCloud Data Center partners —  were really offering the full vCloud Director cloud experience as VMware views it. And it felt it needed to do this to really help educate buyers on the full capabilities of vCloud Director,” he said via email.

Playing catchup is hard, especially for a leader

The bigger problem, is that VMware is behind the curve when it comes to full pay-as-you-go cloud capabilities. And the claim that customers running vSphere internally and vCloud Director in the cloud get fully interoperable elastic cloud services across sites,  is, untrue, said Carl Brooks,  internet infrastructure services analyst at The 451 Group.
“If you run vSphere in house and vCloud outside, you can get very basic capabilities — virtual storage and virtual servers– but that’s very little compared to what you get from any other hoster these days,” Brooks said. With vCloud director, “it’s like VMware is giving you a 1978 Pinto and saying it’s a Formula 1 car.”
VMware would argue that the level and type of services that a third party service provider offers depends on the service provider itself, not on VMware, which supplies the software stack and tools. That’s one big reason that VMware will manage and run this new hybrid cloud, but proof will be in the pudding.
And VMware’s biggest problem — the perception that its software is a proprietary and expensive — remains unchanged.

Banking on the brand

But, VMware has its advantages. For one thing, there are all those customers. If it can stem defections to OpenStack or other cloud technologies and convince enterprise customers that its cloud is a more secure but also cost competitive alternative to AWS, it has a shot. VMware also spun off a bunch of projects to the Pivotal Initiative so it can better focus on its priorities — although Pivotal is also focusing on cloud initiatives. It’s not clear — at least to me — how Pivotal’s work will or will not complement what VMware itself is doing with its hew hybrid public cloud.
The problem there is AWS has a 7-year head start and rolls out new services (and price cuts) practically every week. And it’s getting more enterprise savvy and is showing more interest in co-existence with private clouds preferred by regulation-constrained industries.
OpenStack remains a wild card. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger was careful to talk about the company’s commitment to heterogeneous environments when he outlined the new strategy. And, after all, VMware is a member of OpenStack now, a development that caused a lot of head scratching.  One big reason for OpenStack momentum is that VMware’s rivals and enterprise customers alike have vested interest in preventing VMware from parlaying its on-site virtualization dominance into the cloud.
Staten maintains that VMware’s hybrid-public cloud is trying to be bold without being too bold. “Any way you look at this, it seems like a half-hearted effort which means its likelihood of success is low,” Staten said.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user fontplaydotcom