Cloud

VMware wanted Amazon dead, but now they're partners: Here's why

VMware has publicly stated that Amazon Web Services is the enemy, but it can't help but work with AWS. Find out what's at stake and how both companies are working it out.

Amazon Web Services and VMware may ultimately hope to destroy one another, but today they're the best of friends. To grow even faster, AWS needs to embrace the hybrid workloads it once disparaged as "fake cloud." To remain relevant, for its part, VMware needs to connect its data center strength to the faster-growing public cloud (a reverse on its former statement that if "a workload goes to Amazon, you lose, and we have lost forever").

There is cause for concern if you're VMware, however. Touting the extension of the two companies' partnership by making it possible to run Amazon RDS on VMware within corporate data centers, AWS chief Andy Jassy said the deal would "make it easy for customers to set up, operate, & scale databases in on-premises and hybrid environments, as well as migrate them to AWS." As good as the first part of the sentence may sound to VMware, that last phrase suggests the risk: VMware may have just widened the on-ramp to AWS.

SEE: Quick glossary: Virtualization (Tech Pro Research)

A Hobson's Choice

AWS doesn't have to do this. Not really. While it could presumably make billions of dollars in cloud services waiting on IT laggards to capitulate to the cloud, this pairing with VMware shows a pragmatism lacking from early AWS strategy. Back then, Jassy was quick to insist that investing heavily in virtualization (sold primarily by VMware) to maintain a "private cloud" was "not a 'real cloud' model."

Over time, AWS has softened that stance, while always insisting that the best cloud is public cloud. At AWS re:Invent 2015, Jassy said, "We've had a strong belief ... that over the fullness of time—10 to twenty years—relatively few companies will have their own data centers and those that do will have much smaller footprints." Of course, a few nettlesome issues, like regulatory requirements or the bother of moving legacy workloads, meant that some applications would "definitely be running in hybrid mode for a while."

SEE Cloud v. data center decision (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

And so the company struck a partnership with VMware back in 2016 and continues to trot out the partnership whenever Microsoft, in particular, beats its chest about its ability to embrace hybrid workloads. It's a nice hedge, but one that tends to "migrate [workloads] to AWS."

For VMware, things are more complicated. The virtualization king dominates the datacenter, but momentum is moving to the public cloud. As Jassy points out, that momentum, however strong, is going to take a looooonnnnnggggg time to play out, during which time VMware can figure out its strategy. That time may be even further out if, as EMC's Matt Baker has posited, the technological and economic incentives that had been pushing to public cloud are starting to level out, leaving us in a place where both public cloud and private data center vendors can win big.

Maybe.

Does a rising public cloud raise all boats?

Way back in 2015, Gartner's Thomas Bittman observed that while private cloud VMs were growing at a 3X pace, public cloud VMs were exploding at a 20X pace. As he summarized, "New stuff tends to go to the public cloud, while doing old stuff in new ways tends to go to private clouds. And new stuff is simply growing faster."

That remains as true today as it was in 2015. More so, if anything.

Which means that while AWS arguably needed this partnership to grow, VMware needed it to survive.

SEE: Amazon Web Services: An insider's guide (free TechRepublic PDF)

Back in 2014, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger was blunt in his assessment of the public cloud risk: "We want to own corporate workload. We all lose if they end up in these commodity public clouds. We want to extend our franchise from the private cloud into the public cloud and uniquely enable our customers with the benefits of both. Own the corporate workload now and forever." More poignantly, he lamented, if "a workload goes to Amazon, you lose, and we have lost forever."

Since that time, companies have kept paying VMware for those private data center workloads, but much less so for public cloud workloads. Meanwhile, AWS has cleaned up and will continue to clean up. This deal offers a lifeline to VMware. However, as Jassy reminds us, it also makes it easier for data center-inclined developers to "make it easy for customers to ... migrate [workloads] to AWS."

This isn't to suggest VMware is doomed. Rather, it's to indicate that VMware is playing a dangerous game, one that it can neither afford not to play nor to lose.

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Your take

How do you see the partnership between AWS and VMware playing out? Share your opinions and predictions in the discussion below.

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Image: iStock/metamorworks

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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