VMware’s Cloud Adventure

I like VMware. They’re a solid company with lots of good people (With the exception of whoever is responsible for product names – VMware vCloud Air Virtual Private Cloud OnDemand? Seriously, what is wrong with you?) and tech.

I’ve been using their products for fifteen years and still remember how magical it felt the first time I loaded VMware Workstation and had Windows running inside of Windows. I remember calling someone over to my desk and telling them “Look how cool this is.” I also remember them saying “I guess, but what would you ever use that for?”

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a corporate datacenter that isn’t running some piece of VMware tech. They took virtualization mainstream, and built the foundation of the cloud tech that everyone is using today.

Misdirected myopia

Unfortunately, the world that they built is now eating them. Hypervisors became commodity, where “good enough” is an acceptable target. Hyper-V, Xen, KVM: they all became good enough for ecosystems to be built around them, followed by orchestration and the “cloud”.

VMware seemed completely oblivious to the scale and pace of what was happening. They sat on the sidelines while the world they helped build was being transformed. Maybe the thought was “This cloud stuff is for startups who
will grow into our enterprise products once they get tired of playing with toys.” or “Enterprise customers will move to the cloud… in twenty years.”

Sort of like Steve Ballmer’s “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

Too late, too little

Amazon launched AWS in 2006. Microsoft launched Azure in 2010. VMware vCloud Hybrid Service (now vCloud Air), didn’t launch until 2013 – seven years after AWS, fourty-nine years in dog/tech years.

Given their late entry, they took some shortcuts. Instead of building a native cloud platform from scratch, they pushed their on-premise, datacenter products into the cloud. That sort of works, but only at a very base level. It is heavily reliant on legacy VMware tools for management and orchestration. It doesn’t scale. It requires specific web browsers and plugins.

It isn’t cloud. It looks a lot like what would happen if a VP went to a tech conference, then came back to the office and told their engineers “Everyone has a cloud. We need a cloud. BUILD ME A CLOUD!”

Pointy-haired boss is the reason we can’t have nice things.

But it started getting better in hiccuping bursts. They added DR options and Database-as-a-Service. They stripped out a truly terrible VM backup solution. The people who’ve worked on vCloud Air should be proud of that.

Cutting losses

Then during yesterday’s VMware earnings call:

“CEO Pat Gelsinger said the service (vCloud Air) will have a “narrower focus” going forward and that money invested in it already is considered “adequate for our needs.”

In other words: “vCloud Air is dead.”

What we’ll probably see

vCloud Air might have been able to carve out a significant niche if it had been:

  • a) built as a cloud native platform or
  • b) given more focus.

But that didn’t happen, so it’s probably OK for it to die.

The biggest use case that VMware seemed to be addressing was DR – the “we need somewhere else for this stuff to go” problem. vCloud Air, especially under its original “Hybrid Cloud” moniker, mostly existed as a remote target for the tools you were already running onsite.

So we’ll probably see VMware do two things that they’ve been alluding to:

  1. Expand options for leveraging third-party clouds like AWS, Azure, and Google from within the vSphere and vCloud Director toolsets – for burst and DR.
  2. Refactor existing solutions like ESXi and Horizon to work on third-party clouds. They’re already doing this successfully with their NSX virtual networking product.

Both of these paths help VMware customers get into the cloud, but I’m not sure they’re good for VMware in the long-term. Once a customer is running in the cloud they’ll start asking “We’re here now. Do we really need these legacy toolsets anymore?” In many cases the answer will be “no”.

There’s a hybrid datacenter->public cloud model that VMware can succeed within, but that market will only get smaller as businesses replace applications and go directly to the cloud.

What do?

The onus is on VMware to make their tools more flexible, powerful, and compelling than the tools that AWS and others are building in-platform. If they can narrow and re-direct their focus on future needs (where the puck is headed), and think about cloud in a broader, multi-vendor context they might be able to.

They’ve already started that with containers. Docker orchestration platforms like Kubernetes and Mesos are still rough around the edges and there is room in the space for VMware to get in and leverage the benefit of their size and engineering bench.

Server-less code platforms like AWS Lambda will compete with container-based workloads. I hesitate to say that VMware needs to be in that space too, but it would be worthwhile to consider that containers are not the only future. Going 100% in on containers seems prone to getting stuck in the rut of “follower”, as Microsoft has been until their recent turnaround. Envisioning and pursuing alternate futures is how companies lead and innovate, but requires having leaders who are comfortable with false-starts and failure – or deep pockets and lots of acquisitions(meh).

VMware is doing some great things with end-user compute(EUC) and is starting down the path of meaningful integration between Horizon, Airwatch, and NSX in the datacenter. The story they tell about EUC is compelling and coherent (unlike their cloud narrative). If they can pull off their plans for end-to-end security and consistent access to corporate apps and data across all devices, they will likely trounce Microsoft and other competitors in that space.

They have the pieces and the people – they just need a clear direction and internal consensus to move forward.

Image Credit: Zooey

Stop asking tech people to build your ideas

Sometimes people bring me ideas.

They say “I have this great idea for an app.” or “I have an idea for a tech business.” Inevitably, both are followed by “…and I just need you to build it for me.”

This is nothing special about me – it happens to most tech people.

I used to gracefully dodge with self deprecation or whatever else I could use to let the person down easy. In most cases I was being completely honest. IT is broad and few people realize just how broad and how many different technology skill sets there are.

“I just don’t know enough about that to be helpful. I’m not a developer, I do infrastructure.”

For the last couple of years I’ve started pushing back more, either by destroying the person’s idea or by encouraging them to take action on it on their own.

“You’ve just described Facebook. No, no…stop. Your idea is not different. It’s still Facebook even if you are calling it Gerbil Town. STOP!”

“You know what? That is a great idea. You should totally build that.”

Telling someone that they should act on their idea usually makes them a lot angrier than telling them their idea is terrible.

They say stuff like “That’s why I’m talking to you. I don’t know how to do this crap. I’m bringing this to you as a favor.”

And there’s the crux. You aren’t doing anyone a favor by sharing your idea with them.

Your idea sucks because it’s just an idea.

What you’re really saying to the tech person is “I don’t believe in this enough to even attempt to figure it out on my own. I’m just the idea guy (i.e. useless) and I want you to put in the effort that I’m not willing to put in.”

Learning to code (and most tech stuff) isn’t hard. Developers/engineers/etc aren’t (generally) genius wizards, they just put in the work to learn a skill.

It’s actually easier to learn to code than it’s ever been and there are tons of great training resources like Code Academy and Udemy to help. Like most things, it’s mostly a question of dedicating time and effort – and you don’t have to become an expert, you just have to achieve “good enough” to get started.

If you’re truly passionate about your idea, you’ll make the time and put in the effort.

If you’re asking someone else to do it for you, that’s a pretty good sign that your heart really isn’t in it as much as you think it is. Ponder that. Is it fair to ask someone to be excited about an idea you’re not 100% committed to?

There are people who have pulled themselves out of literally sleeping in trash-filled gutters to 1.) learn to read, 2.) learn to use a computer, and 3.) learn to code and build their idea. And here you are, having just asked someone to commit their energy to something “kinda neat” you thought about while sitting on the toilet.

Even if you find someone willing to put in the work to build your idea (and it’s usually some idiot kid or well-meaning novice), you’ll own something that you don’t understand. Good luck with that.

Too scared to start

Maybe you really do want to do something, but you’re scared. You think “I’ll never be able to figure this stuff out.” or “What if I fail?”

  1. Shut up and start learning. It’s just work.
  2. So what? No one is going to die if you try to make your thing and it doesn’t work out. That’s a pretty good safety net.

Tech people have the exact same fears. We worry that we can’t figure out the business stuff or the biology stuff or the construction stuff, or whatever discipline we want to work with. Most of us don’t execute on our ideas either.

We all say “if only…” and stop.

I’m speaking as much to myself as I am anyone else. I constantly have to kick myself in the butt and say “Stop being stupid. Do the thing.” – Every day of my life.

If you build it they’re at least more likely to come

Great ideas and terrible ideas are of equal value until they are real. The value is in action.

Go do the thing. Build it, even if it starts out crappy. Just by existing it is infinitely better than the thing you never built.

You may discover on your own that your idea is terrible. Good for you. You learned something you can take into your next project. If it turns out to be a good idea and you put in the work to shape the skeleton of it, you won’t have to ask for help, because people will swarm to you.

Stop asking other people to build your dreams. Do it yourself.

Image credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi