Data Centers

Containers are cool now, but VMs may be eternal

Is your company eager to start with containers, but your enterprise is still fixated on virtual machines? You're not alone.

Despite containers being billed as the savior of enterprise software development, container adoption has jumped a miserly three percentage points in the last year, according to new Cloud Foundry data. From 22% to 25% adoption isn't much to crow about, though the same survey data does suggest a hefty bump of companies kicking the tires on containers—from 31% to 42%. This brings us to 67% of all enterprises surveyed at least evaluating containers, a number that correlates with Redmonk analyst Fintan Ryan's own findings that 71% of the world's largest organizations (Fortune 100) have embraced containers.

What none of these surveys uncover, however, is how much of this adoption comes at the expense of more traditional virtualization technology. There are still over 100 million x86 workloads running on VMs in private data centers, a number that edges up at 8% CAGR like clockwork. For containers to really hit their stride, they're going to need to appeal to operations as much as they appeal to developers in the DevOps equation.

SEE: Special report: Riding the DevOps revolution (free PDF)

Getting a handle on containers

With how hot containers have become, one would expect 100% adoption across enterprises, but that's nowhere near the case. While the benefits of containers for developer productivity are clear, Andrew Silver has highlighted a significant problem: "configuring and managing the services, instead of dropping it inside a resource-hogging but easy-to-use virtual machine, can be very time-consuming."

Containers may be fantastic, in other words, but embracing them isn't as simple as it may appear.

As with any new technology, cool as it may be, adoption will be slow. Cloud Foundry's Abby Kearns put it this way: "Enterprises are the colossal cargo ships of the industry - they move slowly, steadily and with a rigorous navigation system. They cannot always afford to be as flexible or lithe as a smaller company, so it takes time to evaluate new technologies before implementation." These same organizations may be completely smitten with the idea of containers, but actually implementing them will take much more time.

In the meantime, as developers continue to flock to containers, traditional IT operations will roll out more and more VMware-driven virtualization. At the same large organizations Ryan suggests are embracing containers, 82.9% already use VMware, according to a Spiceworks survey. Rather than containers dumping VMware and traditional virtualization from the enterprise, they are complementing it.

SEE: Basics of VMWare vSphere & ESXi Virtualization Software (TechRepublic Academy)

AWS goes back to the future

Small wonder, then, that AWS keeps partnering with old school vendors even as it commands new school workloads. A year ago, VMware announced that it was partnering with AWS to deliver VMware's virtualization platform on AWS. Earlier this month, analyst Kurt Marko detailed, the two companies shared the stage at VMworld, with an expanded partnership that suggested "VMware has finally gotten cloud religion."

The benefits for VMware are obvious: Running on AWS makes VMware's software more relevant to increasingly cloudy workloads. As Marko wrote, "once VMware users are running on AWS, they have a fast-lane to its higher-level native services like databases, analytics, Lambda functions and machine learning."

This is simultaneously VMware's risk and reward. While its customers demand this shift to the cloud, the partnership also could become a "a slippery slope that ends up siphoning off a growing share of VMware business as its customers gain trust in the AWS platform, familiarity with its services and understanding of how to use them to build service-centric, cloud-native applications," Marko wrote.

At the same time, while it's clear that AWS stands to benefit from cloud-savvy VMware customers, it's telling that the public cloud giant is no longer able to pooh-pooh "faux cloud" vendors like VMware. As much as VMware needs AWS to be relevant to cloud-hungry enterprises, AWS needs VMware just as much to appeal to the far larger population of slow-moving enterprises that would like to go to the cloud, but don't know how.

While Marko is correct to point out that VMware "sees that it can no longer expect exclusive ownership of [its customers'] infrastructure estate," the same is true of AWS. In this race to containers and the cloud, stodgy infrastructure options like virtualization remain both relevant and differentiating for vendors that want to own enterprise workloads going forward.

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Image: iStockphoto/Jezperklauzen

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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