What customers want to see at VMworld

If I were Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel, I’d be wearing my black baseball hat and yellow slicker and telling you to prepare for the deluge. The amount of virtualization news and marketing bravado being slung this week and next will be hurricane strength. Microsoft launched its virtualization strategy formally Monday, talking tough about price. VMware’s VMworld event begins next week. And Citrix, Sun, Oracle and a supporting cast of third-party companies will be joining in too. So let’s cut through some of the hype so far, then talk about what we really want to see happen at VMworld.

First, Microsoft keeps pushing the message that its virtualization technology will cost IT shops a lot less than VMware’s in the long run. The newest salvo Monday was the announcement of a free version of Hyper-V server, software which can of course be loaded onto OEM boxes going out the doors of major server vendors. (Keep in mind, Microsoft has already said you’ll get a free version of Hyper-V server with Windows Server 2008 data center edition.) VMware already offers a free version of its server virtualization technology, ESXi. This is a counter-move on Microsoft’s part.

Now, says Chris Wolf, senior analyst with the Burton Group, look at what Microsoft’s free server virtualization option is missing: a way to make it work as part of a high-availability solution in a cluster. “If I’m using a hypervisor in production,” Wolf says, “I’m going to deploy it as a cluster to avoid a single point of failure.”

This is a big drawback for Microsoft’s free version, he says. In Microsoft’s favor, its management product should be ready within 30 days, filling a gap that has been quite real until now it its chase of VMware.

But there’s this funny thing about IT veterans, especially CIOs: They are quite conservative about change. Those who already know and love VMware are going to have a hard time getting their heads around dumping much of what they’ve already invested in staff expertise and process around VMware. Microsoft may want to steer the virtualization conversation to price, but that price had better be radically different, because slightly different won’t cut it with most IT shops.

Microsoft is also trying to talk up that IT shops want one shoulder to lean on, and it might as well be Microsoft if you are a big Windows Server shop. This is a classic IT question: Do you go with one vendor or best of breed? Psst: With free, downloadable hypervisors from VMware, Sun and Xen available, anyone who thinks numerous hypervisors aren’t being used in their enterprise right now is wrong. There will be room for several hypervisors in most enterprises.

Now, onto VMworld. VMware’s being played by many media outlets as the underdog right now in the fight against Microsoft. This seems a bit early to me.

True, VMware has had a turbulent few months, after dumping CEO Diane Greene and losing three key executives after letting her go. New CEO Paul Maritz will try to outline the company’s strategy at VMworld and both customers and Wall Street types will be listening closely. (He’s already been quoted as saying it’s early in his tenure and not to expect radical moves yet.)

What do customers want to see at VMworld? Most of all, from what I have heard from IT pros, they want to hear from their peers. They want to hear about how other companies are using virtualization to make IT radically more flexible, to make IT become the department that says “yes” instead of “no.” While many IT pros understand many tactical aspects of virtualization well, they want to bring it to the strategic level now. Virtualization is about much more than eliminating boxes and slashing power bills.

Second, IT shops want solid answers on management. VMware, which has long offered its own virtualization management tools, will continue to stress a best of breed approach, Burton Group’s Wolf says, encouraging customers to blend virtualization in with existing tools they’re using from say HP or IBM.

The wave of third-party management tools companies like Cirba, Vizioncore and Akorri all agree that automation will be a key theme for virtualization going forward. I’d be surprised if you don’t hear VMware hammer on this theme hard next week. Make the routine tasks as routine and least-demanding of IT staffers time as possible. That should be a given.

Also expect plenty of talk regarding virtualization security. Security should be moving much farther up on the to-do lists of virtualization pros. While there are still plenty of unknowns in the virtualization world (for instance, we have yet to see a hypervisor rootkit in the wild) IT shops are becoming more astute in at least asking the right security questions. VMware will try to use security as a competitive differentiator from Microsoft, Wolf says. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Finally, you’re going to hear a lot about this year’s buzzword bombshell, the cloud. Cloud computing remains an idea with wonderful potential that’s in its infancy. Today, cloud computing makes many CIOs shudder with regards to availability, security and compliance issues. But they’re seeing the potential for a few years from now.

And the time is now for VMware, Microsoft, Citrix and Sun to try and position themselves as the best choice to be running in that cloud infrastructure. The harder they work, the faster they can figure out how to answer some of those availability and security questions. So this cloud rivalry should work in your favor, even if you can’t stand all the ridiculous jargon that will be thrown around in the fight.

Las Vegas is as surreal a setting as you can get, but let’s hope next week’s discussions are firmly grounded in reality.

As Chris Wolf put it to me, “It’s nice to talk about a dynamic data center, but don’t show me on a PowerPoint slide. Show me real products.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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