VMware user group fight leaves community diminished

Independent user group HQ excluded Virtzilla rivals, fired volunteers

Ongoing tension between Nutanix and VMware has spilled over into Virtzilla's user groups, which have decided to exclude volunteers who work for rivals. That decision has left both vendors somewhat diminished and the user groups' governing body facing possible rebellion by individual user groups.

This story starts in the last days of 2016, between Christmas and New Year's Day, when some leaders of individual VMware user groups were thanked for their voluntary service but told they were no longer welcome to serve on groups' leadership committees. Would-be sponsors of VMware user group conferences, day-long events that can attract hundreds of attendees, were also told that they and their money weren't welcome.

The volunteers' and vendors' “crime” was either working for, or being considered, a VMware competitor. Especially Nutanix, which competes with VMware in hypervisors, software-defined storage and hyperconverged infrastructure, but is also a decent source of sales for VMware.

Excluding Nutanix or any vendor seems a little odd to The Register's virtualisation desk, for two reasons. Firstly, being owned by Dell EMC, selling management tools and offering virtual storage means VMware overlaps with lots of its partners. But the company has mostly found ways to maintain cooperative and cordial relationships.

Secondly, VMware takes pains to point out that “VMUG”, the organisation that runs VMware user groups and serves as their peak body, is independent from VMware itself. VMware funds VMUG and sends its people to speak at individual user group meetings or user conferences, but officially has a hands-off approach to the operation of both VMUG and affiliated user groups.

If VMUG were truly independent, it's hard to see how a user group has a role fighting VMware's battles with competitors or setting the tone of its relationship in the virtualisation ecosystem. So The Register asked VMware about the exclusion of rivals.

We were told to contact VMUG CEO Brad Tompkins, who declined The Register's request for an interview. We pressed, asking Tompkin whether the decision to exclude Nutanix made by VMUG or VMware. Tompkin replied by telling us VMUG is an independent organisation.

We asked again why, and on what grounds, Nutanix and others had been excluded.

Tompkins pointed us to the VMUG UserCon Sponsorship Prospectus (PDF) and the VMUG Leader - Program Guidelines (PDF), updated on January 1st, 2017. Both contain clauses giving VMUG the power to exclude leaders or sponsors.

But knowing there's a legal foundation for the decision to exclude vendors doesn't explain why VMUG made it!

Tompkins did, however, speak to Chicago VMUG leader Eric Shanks, who blogged about his exchange with the CEO. Shanks says he was told the reasons for the volunteers being moved on and sponsors excluded were “... a decision focused on companies that compete directly with VMware’s products and comes down to a decision about business and competition.”

We asked Tompkins to explain which vendors had been excluded, and why. He replied “I have no further comments on the subject. VMUG is focusing on serving our members and achieving our goals for 2017.”

Another leader of an individual VMUG who works for Nutanix tells us Tompkins is yet to follow through on a promised conversation to discuss the situation.

No winners

These events came to be known as “#VMUGgate” and caused a bit of a social media stir in the first weeks of 2017, when your correspondent was on the beach. The Register has since asked VMUG stakeholders about the situation. None were happy to be named because the situation is raw and the exclusion has stakeholders nervous about further consequences.

Not all feel VMUG was wrong.

A person with experience of the VMware/VMUG relationship told us “The VMUG thing with Nutanix is a beat up to me and is being used as free marketing by Nutanix. There are quite a few ex-VMware people at Nutanix who seem to be 'egging'it on also. And some very immature people at VMware corporate.”

Nutanix is certainly playing the aggrieved party, sending The Register the following comment on the situation.

"Interoperability of people and software is at the core of customer success in the enterprise. The software ecosystem is all about that. That's why we've supported all major hypervisors and clouds. If VMware opens up its software - like Horizon and NSX - to work with non-vSphere stacks, that will be a new beginning. Same with VMUGs and vForums. It's time to be a little vulnerable. It's time to celebrate interoperability."

That statement and the suggestions it includes may just explain why VMware is so irritated by the hyperconverged upstart.

Back to the person familiar with the VMware/VMUG relationship, who defended VMUG's decision by pointing out that “People working for possible competitors have stood down from VMware-related community roles for years.”

“Would HPE allow the head of their user group to work for IBM? Or Microsoft? Or Oracle?”

El Reg also asked a person with experience participating in VMUG committees about the situation. He told us that the decision has gone down badly among VMUG leaders, who tell our source they may ignore it.

“Many leaders are not willing to follow this 'order' from VMUG HQ as they have not witnessed anything untoward and will decide for themselves who are sponsors, what content is on the agenda and who forms their committees,” the person told The Register. “Personally I think it is a sad state of affairs - a bit like a divorce where the kids are used as pawns,” the person added. “VMUG is about the community and VMUG HQ is there to serve the community and be independent.”

“I personally hope the board can lay this one to rest quickly.”

A marketer from a vendor that's attended and sponsored VMUGs told us he was “not surprised given the fact Nutanix have been getting pushed further away by VMware over the past two years.”

“I think Nutanix has been poking the more conservative VMware bear, and this is VMware's way of telling Nutanix to back off.”

But the marketer also feels that “VMware should be taking the higher ground and showcasing how they can work closely and strongly with Nutanix rather than burning bridges.”

“I remember being told that you need to have teflon skin in the industry, and it looks as though VMware need to 'harden up' so it can handle being contested by organisations like Nutanix in the marketplace.”

The good news for VMUG is that this marketer would have no qualms about again supporting its events. Less welcome, perhaps, is the marketer's clear perception that VMware and VMUG act as one.

Another marketer, whose employer has also supported VMUG user conferences, feels the incident might just tip VMUGs into irrelevance.

“To me it is a mistake to take people out of the community who have been involved,” the marketer said.

“The entity that knows most about a technology is the vendor, but they also know that the best way to advance the cause is to talk to people with similar challenges.”

“If you push those other vendors out, there is less new stuff to talk about and less reason to have a user group at all.”

“There is no Microsoft Word user group any more. No PC user group. You don't need that connection any more to understand what is going on.”

Might VMUGs go that way?

The Register's virtualisation desk can't see them going away in a hurry because VMware and the markets it addresses continue to evolve quickly. Users will likely continue to find their peers' perspectives and experiences valuable, if only because they are exchanged freely at VMUG events without the usual heard-it-100-times-before disruption hype.

But as our sources suggest, VMware's emerged from this incident looking like it stooped to stymie a smaller rival, VMUG HQ looks remote and petty, while Nutanix isn't exactly smelling of roses either.

Which can't be good for anyone. Or give potential group leaders much reason to get excited about volunteering their time to keep VMUGs alive . ®

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