Yellow-bellied journo dons black tie, sees flip side of VMWorld

Bish bash booth: Wrong event accreditation gives our man a glimpse into the future

VMware's monster VM

Sysadmin blog As I write this, VMworld San Francisco 2013 is two months behind me. I went, I saw, I schmoozed, and I came away from the event unsettled.

I had expected the event to be a glorification of VMware – a rich parade of the ecosystem that surrounds it and cheerleading by its users. What I found was anything but.

I entered the hallowed halls of my first VMworld as a newly minted vExpert. After a decade in this industry I had achieved a title of rarity, and by Jove, I was ready to indulge in the community that had accepted me.

I overbooked myself on parties and burned myself out, but my obsession with "the community" ultimately served to give me a different perspective from those others who attended as "press" or "analyst".

Fashionable neckwear

When I showed up to register I went to the wrong building – and this turned out to be a stroke of luck. The registration desk handed me a black lanyard for my conference ID; while I thought nothing of it at the time, the black lanyard identified me as a regular attendee. This was to prove critical to my outlook of the event.

Had I gone to the right building I would have been given a yellow lanyard which would have told vendors I was press. Red lanyards were for analysts only. I did eventually get my "proper" yellow lanyard, but only after having roamed the exhibition hall for a day sporting my "regular attendee" neckwear.

When I first got my yellow lanyard I was with a group of other "yellow-bellied" journalists. The acquisition sparked a conversation about the neckwear and a general lamentation that those identified as press were treated by vendors as though they had a communicable disease. Analysts claimed to have it worse and I became instantly curious if this was true.

Sure enough, a brief experiment with a yellow lanyard saw those manning the booths turn pale and fetch an adult. A trained marketer or PR person was trotted out and I would ultimately learn nothing of substance from the vendor in question.

Put the black lanyard back on, however, and I got the sales pitch. I was able to ask difficult technical questions and engage in long debates. Truly, two different worlds were being presented here.

Wake not Goliath

With my press pass, everything was washed-out platitudes. A few new features here, a version tick there. The words used changed, but the information disbursed was predictable and flat. I learned the same details that were available to learn when I browsed the company's website while waiting for the PR person to become available.

As an attendee, however, a startling thing happened: over half of the booths I visited opened with some variant of "we support more than just VMware". I was rather taken aback by this, but it occurred so often that it's obvious these companies feel there's strong demand here.

"We support Hyper-V/KVM/Openstack," they said, and: "We'll free you from vendor lock-in." Another added: "We make moving between VMware and public cloud providers easy." After some consultation with other press and analysts it became clear I was not going mad: the black lanyard causes the bodies manning the booths to sing a different song.

I have confronted several vendors about this outright. The rationale behind the difference is simple: they do not want to be seen in the press pushing support for VMware's competitors at VMware's own conference.

Tame journos known to the various companies would be given the full spiel; but only those they could trust not to embarrass them. The vendors needed VMware and there was no way they could afford to attract the virtualisation Goliath's ire.

Interweaving stories

I've spent the past two months chasing this around. Why the push towards supporting other vendors? The answer, invariably, has been customer demand.

Several companies refused to talk to me unless it was strictly off the record. They are viewed as key enablers of virtualisation and/or cloud adoption and their support of alternate vendors is often all that stands in the way of hundreds of companies moving to heterogeneous environments, or even away from VMware altogether.

How they craft the message around this new support is important to their long-term business relationships and they certainly don't want some journalist screwing it up. I get this – all of it makes perfect sense – but I was still curious as to what the rationale was that the customers had for demanding alternate vendor support.

CommVault was the first vendor to really clear things up. It was the money, stupid. Very few enterprises that CommVault works with were prepared to put their production environments on Hyper-V. By the same token, an equally small number of companies seemed to want to pay VMware's rates for their disaster recovery sites.

CommVault said it was seeing companies turn to it in order to enable production VMware environments be backed up to far cheaper Hyper-V environments: a service that CommVault is only too happy to deliver.

Hey, you, get offa my cloud

Cloud service providers (CSPs) are emphatically not happy about vCHS and VMware's public cloud ambitions. They had been making good money selling Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs) based on VMware's technology and direct competition from VMware is entirely unwelcome.

CSPs adamantly do not want to be beholden to VMware. They want a diversity of vendors available so that they can play each against the other to get better prices. Critically, they want the ability to ditch a vendor entirely if that vendor refuses to play ball.

In response there are hordes of companies rushing in to fill the gaps. CSPs are the new enterprise: they buy in bulk and they have complicated – often bespoke – management requirements that need to "just work". That means an opportunity for high-margin cross-platform management software, something nearly half the VMware showfloor was eager to cash in on.

It's a mite dusty at the coalface

At the end of the tunnel lie the end businesses themselves. Far from the world of CSPs or enterprises large enough to actually have disaster-recovery sites lies the "other 80 per cent" of businesses. These companies are no more eager to be beholden to a single vendor than their bigger brothers. Startups and established industry behemoths like Dell and HP alike report trebling demand for hybrid cloud computing.

The commercial midmarket and even SMBs want the ability to move their VMs from one hypervisor to the next – and from local servers to the cloud – with a minimum of fuss and muss. More to the point, they don't want to be subject to lock-in.

There is a weariness that overcomes both sysadmins and business owners when I bring this up for discussion. Company names like Oracle, Cisco, EMC and Microsoft are spoken of with an exhalation of breath and a haunted look that speak volumes. VMware has joined this elite troupe of vendors.

Decades of various forms of lock-in have served as a continuous negative reinforcement: these people are willing to pay good money today to obtain the tools necessary to break the cycle. A little money now, they argue, is better than waiting for a vendor to simply turn the knobs.

The move away from all-VMware environments is simple: companies want control over their vendor, not the other way around.

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