VMware CEO Paul Maritz was put on the spot between a pair of Gartner analysts on Tuesday evening at Gartner Symposium 2011 and in a one hour question-and-answer session he barely mentioned the word "virtualization," even though VMware remains the runaway leader in server virtualization with 76% market share, according to Gartner. Maritz made it clear that his customers aren't interested in virtualization any more, but are interested in using virtualization to make their IT infrastructure disappear and let them focus on higher value applications.
"Customers are looking to make infrastructure go away," said Maritz. "Infrastructure is a means to an end."
Of course, VMware's virtualization solution can help do that by turning the management of servers into a software task. But, Maritz believes the company is ready to take virtualization a step further by evolving into automation.
"We believe the real game here is not management but automation," he said.
Competition with Microsoft
Despite its dominant position in the market, Gartner analyst Yvonne Genovese said that VMware is being challenged from above by Microsoft and from below by Citrix (with open source Xen). Three years ago, I figured VMware was about to get obliterated by Microsoft, but the company has continued to dominate the virtualization market by innovating enough to keep its current customers and still remaining the default virtualization solution for most new customers.
People continue to predict that Microsoft will eventually overpower VMware since it has simply made virtualization an integrated part of its larger server infrastructure stack. From that perspective, Microsoft essentially gives away its virtualization software for free
"Nothing is truly free in this world," Maritz was quick to note. "We have a free hypervisor, too... Neither of us are really selling hypervisors anymore. We're selling automation and efficiency."
It's also interesting to note that virtualization was created to deal with the server sprawl of the 1990s, which Maritz helped create when he was working at the server division at Microsoft back then. It's ironic that he is now helping to fix the problem at VMware.
The lock-in issue
One of the biggest complaints from VMware customers is that it's not compatible with other hypervisors the way its competitors Microsoft and Citrix are, and so customers are "locked in" to their VMware solution to a degree.
Of course, VMware has no motivation to open up since it has such commanding market share. It has everything to lose and very little to gain -- even if it annoys some customers.
Maritz made the rather self-serving argument that customers don't want hypervisor compatibility, but want application compatibility across the stack. He said, "It's at the application level that we think there needs to be choice... That's where business value is accrued."
He said that he doesn't think we have to worry that we're "going to go back to the bad aspects of the mainframe" such as a highly vertically-integrated environment where your application will only run on a specific IBM mainframe, for example. He sees us moving into an IT world where there will be three big areas -- infrastructure, applications, and end-user computing -- and customers will be able to choose various vendors among the three and won't be tied to a single one.
"We don't believe we will be the only vendor of infrastructure," he added.
When it came to cloud computing, Maritz was still talking about automation. "That's what this whole cloud thing is about," he said. "It's about automation at the lower levels of the stack."
"If you look at what's happening in these big clouds -- Google, Amazon -- they don't use management. They use automation."
Gartner analyst Genovese added, "We think cloud fatigue is starting to set in." (see my article The 10 rising tech trends of 2012, where Gartner downgraded cloud from No. 1 last year to No. 10 this year)
Maritz commented that we're "moving from device-centric world to an information-centric world" and that he's "betting on a heterogenous device pool" that will be accessing that data. In other words, it's not just going to be about Microsoft Windows desktops. It's going to increasingly be about mobile devices and lots of different client platforms.
He also touched on consumerization and employees bring their own devices and noted that enterprise IT will still be held responsible for secure delivery of information on devices that they do not own or control. That's where VMware's VDI and desktop virtualization can help in some cases.
While VMware owns 76% of the server virtualization market, Gartner believes that market is only about 40% penetrated, so there's a lot of growth
"Once you get to the 50% [penetration] point, you've done all the easy stuff," said Maritz. That means it's time to virtualize the mission-critical stuff like databases and line-of-business apps.
"We unabashedly aspire to become one of the leading IT vendors in the cloud era."
"People want to get out of infrastructure," Maritz said. "They want to take it off their plate. That's not going to happen overnight." But, he's confident that virtualization with automation capabilities baked in will play a big role in making it happen.
And, despite his dour tone in talking about virtualization directly, he added that "there are still very real and unsolved problems in the data center" that VMware is well-positioned to help solve.
Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.