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What's VMware's goal with its Virtual Cloud Network release?

Attendees saw a noteworthy turnabout at VMworld 2018. With its Virtual Cloud Network announcement, VMware signaled its new vision of cloud, and the network is the center of its strategy.

With its Virtual Cloud Network announcement, it's clear: VMware is going all-in on cloud, and the network is the center of its strategic vision.

Last week's VMworld, the vendor's annual user event, drew more than 23,000 attendees to Las Vegas in hopes of learning the latest and greatest from the world's leading virtualization vendor. I think this is my 10th VMworld, and I found the tone of this one markedly different than past meetings, as the company appears to have finally found religion with the cloud.

Cloud? Who needs cloud?

Just two years ago, it seemed VMware was trying to convince attendees the cloud held no urgency. At that time, CEO Pat Gelsinger showed a slide indicating it would be many years before more than 50% of workloads would be in public clouds, and as a result, attendees had plenty of time to plan. I was critical of the company after that show and believed it was trying to placate an audience that likely feared the cloud.

This year, it's a different story. VMware seems to have made a hard pivot and now wants to help its customers prepare for the cloud instead of trying to convince them not to worry about it.

To that end, Gelsinger discussed the role VMware is playing today and how its strategy reflects a logical evolution from where it's been. He described Act 1 of VMware as the use of its technology to bridge islands of compute, where its software acted as an overlay to freely move workloads among multiple servers, often from different vendors.

With Act 2, it applied its expertise to clients, and VMware Workspace One had a similar effect on Windows, Macs, virtual desktop infrastructure and mobile devices. VMware's Act 3 was kicked off by acquiring Nicira, when it was able to bridge islands of network hardware. As the result of that acquisition, NSX took some time to gain traction within the industry. But, today, it's a viable data center software-defined networking product.

VMware is now heading into its Act 4, and that involves being a company that bridges the gaps between private and multiple public clouds -- an approach also known as hybrid multi-cloud. Cloud is often used incorrectly, as a singular item. Maybe a few small businesses choose a single cloud provider, but organizations of significant size will use a private and a mix of public clouds. VMware's goal is to provide software that enables consistent infrastructure and operations across the underlying cloud fabric.

VMware's cloud rendition

There's no shortage of vendors pitching the concept of hybrid multi-cloud, but with the announcement of its vision for virtual cloud, VMware brought in an element I haven't heard from anyone else: telco clouds, or carrier clouds. To date, when it comes to cloud, telecom providers have been on the outside looking in, but they have been pushing harder into this market.

VMware's Nick Furman demonstrates NSX SD-WAN.

Gelsinger cited a stat that only about 10% of telco infrastructure has been virtualized, creating a massive opportunity for the company. Historically, telcos have been hesitant to embrace virtualization as part of their core network, but the technology has proven itself to be able to handle the most demanding workloads.   

If one believes in this world of hybrid multi-cloud where an enterprise cloud will consist of some combination of public, hybrid and multi-cloud, the challenge becomes one of interconnectivity, and that raises the value of the network. In the near future, any app will be comprised of data and services scattered across different clouds. This makes the network the most important part of the stack. But this transition is complicated by the fact that legacy networks exist as a set of discrete silos, like the data center, WAN, edge, cloud and others.

VMware's Virtual Cloud Network vision

VMware's answer is something it is calling the Virtual Cloud Network, or VCN, which is a single network abstraction that creates operational consistency, regardless of the underlying hardware or services. VCN connects everything from the branch to the cloud to the data center. It provides pervasive connectivity for users to apps and for businesses to data, as well as intrinsic security, regardless of location. A virtual cloud network enables the vision of connecting any user to any application in any location from any cloud.

With a virtual cloud network, the branch, public cloud, SaaS, user edge, IoT edge and data center all run on a single, common network, with a consistent set of services and operational model. Through all the acts of VMware's history, its hallmark is enabling operational consistency across different silos. And, now, it's bringing that model to the cloud.

A virtual cloud network enables the vision of connecting any user to any application in any location from any cloud.

The most compelling feature of its VCN is automation, which is something of a double-edged sword for IT professionals. Too much automation threatens the livelihood of the traditional VMware buyer, yet the world is moving in that direction. Gelsinger's comments again reflected the mindset change within the company he leads. Instead of dancing around the issue and trying to calm VMware users' possible fears, his advice was to "ruthlessly automate everything." And in the network, that strategy is enabled by the vision of its VCN. It's something IT pros need to hear, so it's nice to see a company of VMware's stature push that message.

The biggest challenge I see in implementing something like a virtual cloud network is where to start. It's unlikely that any organization, even small ones, would be willing to rearchitect the entire network at once. VMware's VCN vision makes sense, but the company needs to bring it down a level to help customers make it a reality. Customers need a starting point, then a blueprint on how to expand it from there.

In my opinion, customers interested in VMware's Virtual Cloud Network should look to start with SD-WAN. NSX is a fine product, but it can be complicated to deploy, and the risk level -- when deployed in a data center network -- can be high.

Conversely, VMware's VeloCloud SD-WAN is simple to deploy and has a fast payback. Once the organization is comfortable with the deployment, I recommend moving the technology first to the campus and then to the data center.

VMware has been in networking for about five years now and spent the early part of that time fumbling around, as it searched for what its role would be other than disrupting Cisco. The main reason it struggled to find its place is it wasn't willing to really drive change. Now, it appears to be all-in on the cloud, and it's using its network portfolio as way to help its customers get there.

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