VCE Wars and Market Wars

The relationship between Cisco, VMware, and EMC has been a great source of sound bites in the last year or so.  When EMC and Cisco partnered to create VCE, a kind of orphan acronym that likely stands for “Virtual Cloud Environment” but which the VCE “About” page fails to define, there was speculation that the union could be revolutionary.  Well, the union is pretty much off with the announcement that EMC will buy most of Cisco’s stake and that VCE will join EMC in the same status as VMware.  The revolution?  Let’s see.

The basic notion of VCE is that cloud infrastructure and virtualization are first and foremost the big thing in IT in general and the data center in particular.  I’ve noted that in my surveys, it’s clear that for enterprises today data center planning and networking are driving the bus for all IT and network spending, and that companies with influence in the data center influence everything.  Even product areas they don’t sell into, in fact.

The second notion behind VCE is that the cloud is a vast whirling assembly of stuff whose integration can easily get totally out of control.  Building a cloud or adding to one could easily become a task so formidable that planners would break into sweats and take the day off.  The VCE solution is the notion of packaged infrastructure—Vblock Systems.  VBlocks have models just like the mainframes of old, but they contain not just the compute but also storage and networking elements.  They are hardware platforms out of the box, things you could align to your business needs and augment as needed.

I was never sure how sensible this approach was, frankly.  It’s not that the basic notions behind the venture are false, but that the project seemed doomed in providing what was really needed, in part because of the fundamental competitive rift I opened this blog with.  It’s not that VMware is a Cisco competitor despite the former’s acquisition of Nicira, a virtual network play.  The problem is that VMware is driving a notion of networking and application-building that Cisco thinks threaten their own efforts to increase their server market and salvage as much traditional routing/switching as possible.  Remember, whoever rules the data center rules the budget.

At any rate, the Cisco/VMware dynamic makes it hard to build a truly one-stop-shop “block” solution for virtualization and the cloud because the real solution would have to include all the platform software.  Go to the VCE website and look at the product descriptions and you find more mentions of Microsoft and SAP and Oracle than of VMware.  While it’s not impossible to create a block/platform strategy that’s missing the software platform ingredients, it’s darn sure sub-optimal.  It also begs the question “is this just another hardware player?”

IBM, no slouch at reinventing itself in times of turmoil, has determined that the commodity server (x86) business is something you can’t be in and be profitable.  Frankly, I think they decided you can’t be in any hardware sector and be profitable, but they can’t strand their proprietary-platform users.  So just what is it that VCE is supposed to do?  Replace IBM as a server company?  Combat HP at a time when turmoil in the market and in HP’s business strategy weaken it?  Darn if I know, but VCE starting as it did as the classic horse-designed-by-committee, seemed from the first to have little going for it.  I think the current situation proves it didn’t.

So what now?  VCE, as an EMC satellite, can definitely create a software-centric vision of a virtualization/cloud platform, but what’s different about that without specific compute hardware?  Will they continue to incorporate Cisco UCS (forget what they say; this is a period of maximum defensive positioning for everyone)?  Will Intel, another minority investor in VCE, step up and field its own commercial server line (risking alienating its current server customers)?  And in any event, how would a software-centric positioning of a Vblock look different than the positioning of VMware’s offerings?

One potential benefit for EMC of a satellite VCE would be as a framework for absorbing (rather than spinning out) some of its strategic elements, like VMware.  VMware’s own growth is becoming more problematic as the market matures, and storage is still something that fits into an architecture rather than forms one as far as enterprise buyers are concerned.  It would certainly help EMC to be able to tell a cohesive story, to frame a combination of things as strategic when any individual piece of that pie was going to look pedestrian.  But EMC would have to do that positioning, or have VMware do it, and neither of them has been very good at singing and dancing.

That may be the foundation reason behind the Cisco/EMC split.  Cisco, marketer extraordinaire, may have concluded that either 1) VCE will fall on its face, embarrassing Cisco and leaving a hole in its positioning, or 2) Cisco would make VCE into a powerhouse that would eventually end up combined with VMware to pose a greater threat than before.

All of this of course ignores the two foundation points; data center control and increased platform complexity.  Neither of these is going away, which means that every vendor with any product in networking or IT is eventually going to have to address them.  Do software-centric players (which means IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, VMware) build up a notion of the platform of the future as software that envelopes and commoditizes servers further?  Do hardware players try to bundle software with hardware to undermine the influence of companies who want to provide software only as an independent overlay?  Do network vendors embrace server/software integration or try to stand against it and position against the current trend?

Probably all of the above, but as you likely guessed my view is that none of these is the right approach.  If complexity is the problem then something that can directly manage complexity is the solution.  I don’t think the NFV ISG undertook their task optimally but that doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute some critical insights.  The notion of MANO (management/orchestration) may be the key to the kingdom here, no matter what kingdom you’re aiming for.  Automation of the relationship between application components, resources, and users could be the glue that binds all we have today into a new software architecture.  That would be a prize to any of the groups, the vendors, I’ve named.  Enough of one to make VCE and EMC a true strategic player if they seize it, or a true strategic loser if they don’t.