VMware and AWS: The peanut butter and jelly in DevOps pros' pantries

Two great tastes that taste great together: VMware may seem to be the darling of a bygone era, but as enterprises transition to DevOps, it's very much on the menu alongside Amazon Web Services.

Airbnb Inc.'s move to VMware from an AWS-only deployment may have seemed like an anomaly, but VMware is a big part of many enterprise IT shops' DevOps transition.

VMware and Amazon Web Services (AWS) form the foundation of a hybrid cloud platform on which DevOps processes can be based for even the most forward-thinking companies, which say there are still capabilities VMware can offer with its hypervisor that AWS -- built on the Xen hypervisor -- does not.

Choosing VMware and AWS clouds to run alongside one another, rather than "a retreat from one or the other," was an early strategic decision for FlightStats Inc., a global data service company in the aviation space based in Portland, Ore., and now owned by FlightGlobal, explained Alex Witherspoon, vice president of engineering.

VMware can make a legacy Solaris application more supportable, which AWS cannot, he said. "Because we had a hybrid cloud, we never had to say, 'Oh, I guess we just can't run that.'"

I/O-intensive databases are also better left to the VMware cloud, where FlightStats can "very precisely sculpt the memory, CPU and IOPS profile" for those applications, Witherspoon said. AWS' prepackaged instance sizes don't always allow for that -- for example, it's difficult to get high-performance networking with smaller Elastic Compute Cloud instances, he said.

Enterprise apps can't be all cloud-native

Meanwhile, VMware also has a role to play in efficient software development, particularly at enterprises, where a complete shift to cloud-native applications is actually cost-prohibitive, even when technically possible.

For every dollar spent in a VMware private cloud, Witherspoon estimated FlightStats spends $3 in AWS. But paying for the development resources to make completely cloud-native applications is also an unrealistic goal for most organizations.

"Writing distributed software is very difficult and expensive, and some problems are more easily solved with one big thing that just does some work," he said.

Not everything is suited to the elasticity of AWS' infrastructure -- and VMware holds its own when enterprise IT pros must scale up applications on a predictable yearly basis, Witherspoon said.

Some organizations are mature in their IT management processes built around VMware; thus, there's a lower barrier to building a VMware private cloud. Some applications also require a high-density workload to run very hot for a long time, which is where a VMware private cloud beats an AWS deployment, said Patrick McClory, director of automation and DevOps for Datapipe Inc., a provider of managed hosting services for AWS based in Jersey City, N.J.

There aren't many cases of "backward diversification," such as Airbnb, but, "in rare cases, a hardware buy still makes sense," McClory said.

Containers bring VMware and AWS together

Microservices and containers are the talk of the DevOps world, and, in many ways, it is containers that allow companies such as FlightStats to truly get the best of both worlds from a hybrid cloud deployment.

Previously, it was difficult to tie together AWS and VMware environments at the hypervisor level, but as the container era dawns, companies such as FlightStats use a combination of Docker and infrastructure automation software for push-button application deployments into either cloud.

"Some organizations are not necessarily deploying a workload across multiple providers, but [they] are maybe deploying different workloads in separate providers and using container mechanisms to keep their pipeline consistent," McClory said.

In greenfield deployments, a bare-metal substrate is preferred to maximize container efficiency. But VMware virtual machines still form the underpinnings for such platforms at most enterprises, because that's where enterprises have existing infrastructure investments, said Jay Lyman, analyst with 451 Research.

"That's how enterprises are implementing containers, because they get some of the benefits of containers, such as speed, simplicity, manageability and efficiency," Lyman said. "But they also get their tried-and-true VM process and the security, tooling, compliance and regulatory things that are pretty solid and battle-tested on VMs."

Still, VMware has its share of problems, as it faces a classic Innovator's Dilemma. Containers will eventually disrupt VMs, Lyman said, along with container orchestration and management platforms, such as Kubernetes and Mesos, while VMware's vSphere Integrated Containers platform languishes in beta.

VMware is still probably on the downside of its lifecycle as a company, in the views of industry observers. Its attempt to become the management layer for multiple clouds, for example, will probably not succeed, unless it can figure out a better technical approach than RightScale, which offered multicloud management a decade ago without taking over the market, McClory said.

"They're trying to diversify in some places where they don't belong," McClory said, while "fewer customers are buying fewer [VMware] licenses over time."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

Next Steps

VMware offers two container platforms: VMware Photon Platform and vSphere Integrated Containers. One will feel familiar to vSphere users, while the other is completely new -- but it may be worth the learning curve.

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