VMware CEO doesn’t know who will run its hypervisor on SmartNICs

Maybe clouds. Maybe banks. Probably not you, until they matter to developers


+Comment VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger is unsure who will use the recently announced cut of the company's ESXi hypervisor for SmartNICs with Arm CPUs.

Speaking to The Register in a post-VMworld interview during which we asked who VMware imagines as the software’s first users, Gelsinger said: “I don’t think we know yet.”

“We are going to go to our top customers and partners, early alpha customers," he added. "I fully expect some of those will be financial services customers. They’re big, they’re demanding, they want low latency, high performance, high security."

“I also expect some of our cloud partners as well,” Gelsinger continued, suggesting they need high bandwidth and low latency across their networks. “I would also expect media companies,” he said, name-dropping Comcast and saying it has an interest in network acceleration and security, and won’t be the only one in its industry to harbor such desires.

But overall, Gelsinger is just not sure: “We are in the early part of the design phase where I think it is premature to say exactly who ends up being those first customers.”

One thing is clear: it won’t be average users, for a while. Which isn’t unusual for VMware, which often starts among its biggest users and then trickles technologies down to the rest of you.

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But it is a little unusual for VMware, a company that prides itself on responding to customers’ needs, to just dangle a product in the wind.

Of course, when it comes to Arm, VMware is not just responding to customers. It is also hedging for the future because it knows as well as anyone that Arm will almost certainly get a bigger role at the edge, is already making waves in the cloud and is making a strong run at servers. VMware’s “run and manage anything, anywhere” strategy means ignoring Arm isn’t an option.

But SmartNICs are an odd place to start.

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VMware is a de facto standard and that’s something SmartNICs will need if they are to become relevant beyond their current home in the hyperscale cloud. But an ecosystem built on VMware alone won’t excite many users.

Then there’s the fact that SmartNICs, like any new layer of infrastructure, will create new problems.

I recently mentioned SmartNICs to Daniel Gruss, assistant professor in the Secure Systems group at Austria's Graz University of Technology, one of the researchers who co-discovered the Meltdown and Spectre flaws and a side-channel attack specialist. He gulped and mentioned that his team used conventional NICs were used to drive Rowhammer attacks. Which could rather dampen enthusiasm for SmartNICs that have considerably more power.

Lest you think The Register is being unhelpfully curmudgeonly, let’s revisit the most recent commercial offering of something resembling a SmartNIC: hyperconverged contender SimpliVity and its “OmniStack Accelerator Card”.

The card handled inline data deduplication, inline compression, and inline write optimization. It helped SimpliVity to win sufficient customers that HPE snapped it up.

Rival HCI vendors called out the card as a proprietary and non-standard oddity that made SimpliVity risky. VMware’s rivals will do the same. HPE still sells SimpliVity. But it also buddied up with Nutanix and has other HCI offerings besides. So maybe this whole accelerator card thing just looks a bit weird to many customers.

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VMware does have something up its sleeve: at VMworld 2020 I spoke to the company’s principal engineer Joe Beda about SmartNICs and he said he is excited about SmartNICs because they “open possibilities for developers to containerise with hardware in a deeper and deeper way.”

Beda said VMware has integrations to do so in the works, can’t say “what those integrations are at this time” but has a “ton of ideas for efficiencies” including decomposing applications so that they run in different places.

Anything that makes developers and applications more productive and efficient is always welcome. VMware knows that very well, which is why it is now hot for Kubernetes and a little cool on infrastructure and ops types.

So perhaps it doesn’t matter if VMware doesn’t know who will run ESXi on SmartNICs, because the offer it has for the users who matters most is still hidden from view. ®


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