When is a VMware cloud a vCloud? Let the API wars begin

James StatenAttention enterprises Pop Quiz: If your favorite hosting provider launches a cloud service that supports VMware vSphere and is part of the VMware vCloud initative, are they providing you with the rich vCloud functionality VMware is touting at VMworld this week?

The answer is no, because vCloud hasn’t been delivered yet and probably won’t be until the first half of 2010. If you answered yes, don’t feel too bad because VMware, in its efforts to prepare the market for vCloud, has made the current state very confusing. First off, the company grandfathered all the members of its VMware Service Provider Partner (VSPP) program into being vCloud partners. This has led many a traditional hoster – who doesn’t even have an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) cloud platform to say they are now a cloud. Sorry, but if you can’t automatically provision VMs upon request from a self-service portal, don’t have pay per use billing and require a 12-month commitment, you’re not a cloud platform. Second, a hosting provider can support the vSphere VM format without letting you manage your VMs in a standard way (they don’t even have to give you access via vCenter). And third, if you want to integrate with their platform programmatically, their APIs are likely their own.

Why does this matter? You use VMware in-house, you just want a cloud that does too. The VM format supported isn’t really the issue (heck converting your VMs from VMDK to OVF, Xen, or Amazon AMI is fairly trivial. And tools like Citrix’ Project Kensho do this very effectively).  Management is where this really matters because the simplest way to consume IaaS cloud resources is when you can use your own tools for deployment, monitoring and reporting, administration, security, integration and life cycle management. And that simply isn’t the case today (thank you Amazon for letting enterprises finally manage cloud security with their own tools).

The same criticism can be levied at all Xen-based clouds today, too. Amazon, Rackspace, GoGrid and several other hosters have published the APIs to their cloud platforms but only Amazon’s, thus far, have a realistic chance of reaching de facto standard status (especially when Eucalyptus and the Sun cloud – if it ever sees the light of day under Oracle – use the same APIs).

Interoperability requires consistent APIs – a subset at least – among cloud platforms. And VMware took this step today. It’s a pre-emptive move and a smart one to release its vCloud APIs and hand them over to the DMTF to manage as public APIs, because it lays the groundwork for a promise of better interoperability and compatibility between IaaS clouds (and enterprise internal and hosted clouds) when vCloud finally arrives. To try to ensure that their APIs can deliver this value, VMware also announced its vCloud Express program that asks for a commitment from cloud hosters to support and expose the vCloud API within their API set ensuring not only a clear conveyance through marketing that this cloud is compatible but giving the hoster the ability to differentiate around this API by intermingling it with their own unique functions.  This is a good move by VMware because this guidepost will be key for enterprises that want a cloud provider that can most closely match their in-house deployment. It also gives ISVs some runway to build their solutions and have them ready by the launch of vCloud in 2010.

It’s also competitively important in light of the momentum Amazon Web Services has with its APIs and this week’s announcement by Xen.org to raise its level of cloud compatibility.

This announcement has also moved the hypervisor wars to a new battlefield – programmability. Because at the end of the day, it’s less about how good your virtualization solution is (there’s a clear bar of function, performance and maturity that must be crossed – and XenServer and VMware both are over that bar); it’s how big your market share and how robust your ISV and hoster ecosystems are that matter. Xen has clear hoster ecosystem market share leadership in IaaS clouds. VMware brings the muscle of its enterprise and ISV market share to this battle.

The war is really just a skirmish today as still just a fraction of enterprise buyers are leveraging IaaS cloud services. Forrester survey data shows that while less than 10% of enterprises are leveraging IaaS clouds today, more than half plan to in the next 2-3 years so there’s a lot to be gained from victory. 

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Let the API wars begin!

By James Staten

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