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VMware bursts into public cloud with vCHS

Great cloudy hope pinches partners and lacks key features

Analysis Here is how the cloud infrastructure market works: you can compete with Amazon Web Services and commit yourself to punishing capital expenditures as you build out your data centers, or you can try and come up with a service that does something Amazon doesn't, and charge a premium for it.

Take a guess as to which one VMware opted for.

The company's virtual Hybrid Cloud Service was announced on Monday at VMworld, and since then this vulture has been stalking the corridors of the San Francisco's Moscone convention center on the hunt for information. Here is what we've learned:

vCHS is not competitive with Amazon Web Services at launch, lacking many of the features of Bezos & Co.'s cloud. "These are really two different things," says VMware cloud architect Massimo Re Ferre.

The cloud lacks many storage services "particularly when it comes to object storage – S3, EBS, [Amazon] have good stuff, they're good – we are still working on stuff," Ferre says.

We asked VMware whether it had plans to partner with big brother EMC on adapting the Atmos blob storage technology for vCHS. "This is an area vCHS will deploy down the road," Raghu Raghuram, VMware's executive veep of cloud infrastructure and management, told us. "At this point we're not sure if it's a build, or a buy, or a partner."

Where vCHS does excel over the other clouds is virtual machine migration, along with touted future features around backup and on-premise to cloud migration, due to VMware's inherent expertise around ESX.

"VMware has been successful because we've been able to insert this layer between the hardware and the operating system and the app without requiring you to change that application," VMware cloud services veep Matthew Lodge says. "The difference with Amazon [is] in the VMware case what you're dependent on is the management and operations model. The app is not dependent, it's the way you operate and build out your data center."

As far as the technology within vCHS, the details remain vague: VMware is developing some technology to support its cloud – notably the massive Puppet-based "Project Zombie" VM spin-up and automation system, and a thinly discussed tech named "vSIM", which is an integration manager for the tenant provisioning of vCloud Director – but much of the technology is based on the next-generation of VMware's traditional vCloud and vSphere products. It is using its Nicira-based "NSX" network virtualization technology, but has not given full details.

"We are using vCHS as a guinea pig for some of our shipping product, [so we] can get vCHS to help us iron out some of the kinks," Raghuram says.

The company will not disclose the hardware it is using to run the cloud, and when we asked Lodge whether the company had sourced gear from Asian original hardware makers such as Quanta – as other clouds are known to do – or traditional Western IT suppliers such as IBM, HP, Dell, and the like, he wouldn't answer.

Developers expecting an AWS-like experience on first sign-up with the cloud will be disappointed: at launch, vCHS will take "hours to days" to give you an account to access the service's full cloud infrastructure, compared to "minutes" on AWS, according to Ferre. It isn't like swiping a credit card. "I think that getting an account on a public cloud is a one-shot thing," Ferre says. "Unless you wake up in the morning with a burning desire to do that, I don't think that's a problem."

Unless you are a major VMware customer, there's no compelling reason we can see to use the technology over clouds on offer from Google, Microsoft, and Amazon – and VMware admits this. "vCHS is probably the best platform to extend your data center," Ferre says. "Amazon is by far the best cloud to support these other applications".

VMware says vCHS is a way for it to "establish our beachhead" among the traditional customer base, according to Raghuram. vCHS "starts out more for the traditional VMware customer," he said.

"The developer wanting VMs on demand? That is a market that is served," Raghuram says. "We think the [vCHS] market is compelling to enterprise customers."

By doing vCHS, VMware is getting into a territory occupied by its partners, many of which have spun up small clouds using the company's vCloud Director software. vCloud Director was VMware's first attempt at cloud, and its idea was that a federation of independent companies would use VMware's tech to offer similar reliable services, without VMware needing to become a service provider. Judging by the creation of vCHS, vCloud didn't grow enough to satisfy VMware's need to develop a credible cloud shield against the growth of Amazon.

One vCloud Director service provider, speaking to El Reg on condition of anonymity, told us their company felt "left out" by the vCHS announcement, and worried for what vCHS meant for their business.

We put this concern to Raghuram, and he said "our plan over time is we will offer our service-provider partners reference diagrams and blueprints and architectures of how we are running vCHS, and potentially the value-added software we have built to run it."

There are also signs that the beta of the cloud service was a headache for early testers, as it offered no migration path to the general availability version. Lodge justifies this by saying "we'll never do it again" and noting the beta was in a very limited trial.

VMware said it was compelled to do vCHS due to customer demand. "We had very clear feedback from our customers that a service from VMware is very different from a service from a partner in terms of rate of innovation," Lodge says.

The footprint of the service appears to be rather small – by the end of 2013, VMware expects the cloud will be available from facilities in Santa Clara, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Sterling in Virginia, along with Savvis facilities in Chicago and New York data centers.

However, when asked, VMware executives would not tell us whether these are colocation facilities or dedicated vCHS bit barns. They would not specify IT floorspace, either.

As far as we can tell, vCHS will not have relevance beyond the VMware faithful – of which there are many – until the company introduces new billing features and adds in more technology from cloud darling Pivotal. Given that these features are unlikely to come in until late 2013 or early 2014, the cloud remains the dominion of Amazon Web Services, with other rivals still maneuvering their workload catapults into position for a credible assault. ®

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