VMware CTO looks back at 'wild ride'

Few IT companies have fundamentally changed the data center like VMware. Yet 13 years into VMware's existence nearly all of its co-founders, including the wife-and-husband team of CEO Diane Greene and Chief Scientist Mendel Rosenblum, have moved on.

Still left to tell the story of VMware's early days is Stephen Herrod, the chief technology officer, who was working with Rosenblum as a Ph.D. student at Stanford University before VMware's founding in 1998.

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At the time, there was little reason to think the idea of applying IBM's mainframe virtualization to commodity x86 servers would transform enterprise IT and be used by nearly every member of the Fortune 1000.

"I guess you have to be blindly optimistic to do any of this," Herrod said in an interview with Network World. "At the time, no one had ever virtualized the Intel processor and it became clear very quickly that it was not designed to do so. There were a lot of hard technical challenges that made it fun."

There were five co-founders of VMware. Although Herrod wasn't one of the five they were his office mates at Stanford, where a graduate school project laid the foundation for VMware's technology.

IBM created virtualization in the 1960s to enable more efficient use of mainframes, but the x86 servers with Intel and AMD chips so common in today's data centers never gained the benefits of a hypervisor until Rosenblum and his students started their work.

Although it was virtualizing Windows Server that would make VMware its real cash, the first step was getting the Windows desktop to run in a virtual machine. It took two hours to get Windows 95 to boot in a VM, but the fact that it booted at all made the project a success.

"That was a huge victory, because the team figured out how to make virtualization boot," Herrod says.

While the Windows desktop OS served as an important test case, and VMware's first product was focused on the desktop, Herrod says "the plan all along was definitely to bring virtualization into the data center and onto servers."

At Stanford, the team first worked on virtualizing the MIPS architecture as a proof of concept, but VMware's focus would be Intel chips. The first challenge was making an operating system feel at home in a virtual machine on an Intel processor, by emulating the whole PC within the VM, letting the OS believe it has access to a full computer including the CPU, graphics card and disk drive. The second challenge was being able to emulate the Intel architecture at high speed.

"There's a lot of complexity in the Intel processor," Herrod notes. VMware was bold in its earliest days, however, holding meetings with Intel to request hardware modifications that would make virtualization easier. Nowadays, Intel builds its processors with virtualization in mind.

The Windows software itself didn't pose any special problems, Herrod says. Once the VMware team could model hardware in a virtual machine to make it look like a real machine, any operating system could run just fine, from Linux and Solaris to Windows and Mac.

When Greene and Rosenblum started VMware, their co-founders were Principal Engineer Scott Devine, Chief Architect Edouard Bugnion and Principal Engineer Edward Wang.

Herrod graduated from Stanford before they began the company, but instead of joining VMware he worked for a startup called Transmeta that was creating technology related to virtualization and low-power processors.

"I needed a job," Herrod explains, but he kept in touch with the Stanford team and joined them at VMware in 2001, not long before the company's first million-dollar quarter.

"When I first got here we were a one-product company shipping VMware Workstation," a desktop virtualization product, Herrod says. "Our pitch was run Linux on Windows. What a strange pitch at the time."

Out of the five founders, only Devine remains, with Bugnion having left in 2004 and Wang in 2009. Devine makes few, if any, public appearances, but is an important member behind the scenes, and is one of the technical leaders of VMware's project to bring virtualization to Android phones.

"He's played a key role in mobile virtualization," Herrod says.

VMware recently deleted the profiles of the five founders from its executive leadership page, leaving only their names, titles and the dates they worked for the company. Although it may seem VMware is de-emphasizing its origins, a VMware spokesperson insists the site is just undergoing a refresh.

"Internally, there is a very healthy respect [for the founders] and a lot of ties to what we've always been," Herrod says. "It's definitely a great recognition of the past."

When VMware owner EMC fired Greene in 2008, ex-Microsoft executive Paul Maritz was brought in as the new CEO to accelerate the company's growth.

Despite the overhaul of VMware's management team, which has brought in several more former Microsoft executives, Herrod says the essential goals remain.

"Diane was a good friend and a great person, and Paul is as well," Herrod says. "They're both technically oriented and kept innovation at the core of what we do. In that sense, it's been a very continuous push."

In VMware's early days, Microsoft -- now VMware's biggest rival -- was one of its most important customers. According to Herrod, VMware's hypervisor made it easier for developers to write code for different versions of Windows. Now, Microsoft has its own virtualization technology with Hyper-V and urges businesses to use Hyper-V instead of VMware for development purposes and for hosting production applications such as Microsoft Exchange.

Hyper-V's inclusion in Windows Server and the rising price of VMware technology could help Microsoft chip into VMware's market share lead.

"There are multiple sides to the relationship," Herrod notes.

Given VMware's early focus of virtualizing Windows applications, one could argue that without Microsoft there would be no VMware. Yet Herrod says regardless of which operating system customers used, VMware's focus is "making more efficient use of hardware and making people more efficient by automating things."

With Microsoft trying to replace VMware by making virtualization just another component of the operating system, Maritz argues that VMware technology is making the OS itself less important by taking over the job of managing hardware.

Hyper-V has moved from a niche product to production-ready in the past few years, according to analysts, but VMware says its own, more expensive virtualization platform is still necessary to make the task of managing data centers bearable.

Additionally, VMware has moved into new areas, such as providing infrastructure to cloud computing providers, tools for application developers, and end-user software such as client access points for the iPad, the Zimbra email service, enterprise collaboration software SocialCast, and an online spreadsheet creator called SlideRocket. A series of small acquisitions have fueled this growth.

VMware "is growing in importance on a number of fronts," Herrod says. While use of Hyper-V, which comes free with Windows Server, is undeniably expanding, Herrod says VMware hasn't hit its own peak.

"[Microsoft has] been doing this for seven years now, and rumors of our demise have come up every year," Herrod says. "We continue to be the very strong leader."

With the email and presentation software assets VMware already owns, it could make a competitive move against Microsoft's Office cash cow. But Herrod says, "We'd be silly to do that," and insists SlideRocket is just "a new way to share presentations" in real time, and not a competitor to Microsoft's PowerPoint.

VMware is planning to tackle a market Microsoft has failed to capture, the mobile phone and tablet arena. But instead of creating a new mobile operating system, VMware, naturally, plans to bring virtualization to handheld devices so that users can switch back and forth between work and personal environments that are isolated from each other.

The initial focus is running extra instances of Android on top of Android devices, but "technically it's just like virtualization of the PC," Herrod says. "You could imagine any operating system running there."

The mobile space isn't VMware's only new target. "We're looking at the future of things in the data center," Herrod says. "We're looking hard at where networking, storage and security will go."

Given the threat from Microsoft's Hyper-V to VMware's core business, it's an open question whether VMware's next 10 years will be as successful as its first 10. But given what VMware has already accomplished, it seems obvious that Herrod and his Stanford colleagues had the right idea from the beginning.

"It's definitely been a fun and wild ride," Herrod says. "Very fortunately, we've been successful the entire time."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "VMware CTO looks back at 'wild ride'" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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