Gunning for a bit part, is VMware's public cloud ambition realistic?

Beyond the snarky tweets, there's some validity in VMware's approach. But just how big is its opportunity?

IT's cloudy future
Credit: Diana Robinson via Flickr

I'm the guy that VMware PR folks love to hate. Perhaps due to an overdose on public cloud Kool-Aid, I've often been a little scornful at the pace of VMware's messaging and product mix in reaction to the rise of public cloud vendors like Amazon. There has been, in my view, a little too much FUD and not so much enabling real change for customers.

But that said, I've also gone on record as saying that vCloudAir, VMware's public cloud platform, actually makes a whole lot of sense for a number of distinct organizations. Despite their being wary about my intentions, I was given the opportunity to sit down with one of the vCloud Air execs, Angelos Kottas, at VMworld to discuss the platform. (Disclosure: VMware covered my travel and expenses to attend the event.) The discussion came after some commentators had questioned the success that vCloud Air is seeing, and the day after VMware announced some new platform features, including vCloud Air SQL, Site Recovery Manager Air, and object storage.

For context, vCloud Air is now a couple of years old and, according to Kottas, the last two or three quarters have seen real growth in the platform as it moves from simply pilot projects or proofs of concept to real deployments. Kottas told me that some customers have increased their vCloudAir footprint by 200% to 300% (but did admit that they were coming off a small base).

I asked Kottas the obvious question, whether vCloud Air has any applicability to new VMware prospects or if it is simply a platform of use to existing VMware customers. The value proposition for those existing customers is obvious — they get to move to the cloud but within the context of an existing VMware footprint; the usage patterns and methods are consistent between their existing on-premises infrastructure and their vCloud Air footprint. But greenfields customers are something else. If you have no existing VMware connection, it's hard to see why you'd use the platform instead of a more mature and broad platform such as Amazon Web Services.

Kottas conceded that the most obvious fit is for existing VMware customers wanting to utilize a VMware-based hybrid offering, but he did point out that some customers have come onto vCloud Air from other platforms. He told of one organization that was previously 100% physical on Microsoft and that had tried Azure but ended up deploying fully on vCloud Air. That said, Kottas explained that VMware is primarily focused on its existing customer base. He rightly pointed out that there is real opportunity to deliver to those customers.

During a Q&A session at the show, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger made a remark about the Edward Snowden leaks and how they had been a turning point in public cloud adoption. There was a communal inhaling of air as the commentators in the room muttered in incredulity — we're all well aware of the growth that Amazon Web Services is seeing; the No. 1 public cloud vendor has revenue greater than that of VMware's in total. To suggest that anything is substantially harming public cloud growth seems more like an attempt to slow customer adoption, than it does a valid comment.

And this is where I see the real tension for the vCloud Air team. The product makes absolute sense, at least for existing VMware customers, but it looks very much like the thin end of the wedge for the company. While Gelsinger was very positive about the platform, that positivity seemed to me, in the keynote at least, to be somewhat subdued and secondary to the company's focus on its traditional virtualization and infrastructure products. While Kottas explained to me that he believed vCloud Air will in fact be a revenue builder for the company (as it owns not only the software but the entire life cycle within the data center), the gut feel of most is that cloud is, in general, toxic to VMware's bottom line.

vCloud Air is undeniably a valid product choice, but the questions remain about the total size of the market opportunity that VMware can realistically harness, and the company's long-term commitment to doing what it needs to do to make vCloud Air a success.

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