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VMware Covering Its Container Bases for Both the Short and Long Term

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted October 26, 2015

If you're wondering why this column seems to talk about containers as much as server virtualization technology these days, it's because the two have been becoming ever more intertwined as each day has passed. The distinction between the two is become increasingly blurred.

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And today we're going to talk about server virtualization giant VMWare, Virtually Speaking but only in the context of its increasing involvement in the container space.

At its annual VMworld virtualization jamboree in San Francisco at the end of August, the company made two important announcements about containers: vSphere Integrated Containers and VMware Photon Platform.

The first of these, vSphere Integrated Containers, is revealing. Why? Because it shows just how scared VMware is about the threat that containers pose to its business.

vSphere Integrated Containers a Short-Term Solution?

In the short to medium term, vSphere Integrated Containers should protect VMware's business by providing a way for customers to embrace container technology without abandoning the world of VMware, which has vSphere at its heart.

The system uses VMware' s vSphere 6's Instant Clone capabilities, its Project Bonneville technology, which launches containers within VMware virtual machines, its NSX network virtualization technology to integrate containers with the rest of the data center, VMware wizardry like vMotion and vSphere High Availability to reduce and manage planned and unplanned container downtime, and vCenter for overall management of the container fleet.

Essentially, it's a whole bunch of VMware technologies that have been packaged together for a purpose that the older ones weren't originally designed for: managing containers.

That doesn't mean the solution won't be effective. Far from it. And it's probably a tad harsh to suggest that it has been cobbled together. It's considerably slicker than that.

But there's definitely the impression that VMware engineers were told to get a container solution out of the door fast, before they started looking elsewhere. And this is the result.

Looking for a Long-Term Solution in the Photon Platform

The second announcement is about the Photon Platform. It appears that VMware has been thinking strategically about containers and concluded that what it needs to head off the threat they present to its business in the longer term is something new. The Photon Platform is the result.

It's a platform designed for running what VMware insists on calling cloud-native applications — essentially containerized applications running in cloud infrastructure. Although it will use existing NSX network virtualization and Virtual SAN storage technologies, it is built on two fundamentally new things:

  • VMware Photon Controller - A multi-tenant API-driven control plane that allows for the creation of thousands of containers per minute, and that can support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous containerized workloads, all while providing what the company terms "enterprise-grade trust" and security for these containers. The Photon Controller will be available in private beta towards the end of the year.
  • VMware Photon Machine - A mysterious-sounding technology that includes a new lightweight hypervisor (a microvisor) for containers running in the open source Project Photon OS, which is a lightweight Linux operating system designed by VMware for running containers and that is optimized for VMware environments.

Administrators will be able to use a choice of orchestration frameworks with the Photon Platform, including Docker Swarm, Google's Kubernetes, Mesos or Cloud Foundry.

So essentially what we have here is both a near-term container solution built out of many of VMware's existing products that its virtualization customers can use today, and a longer-term solution the company hopes will allow it to keep its customers as customers — if and when containerization becomes more important than virtualization.

VMware's longer term play is a bold step, but it's one the company has to take. It's also a step into the relative unknown: into a new battleground, and into a war that there's no guarantee it will win.

Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.

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