Virtualizing your reality: 10 questions with Mark Egan of VMware

VMware CIO Mark Egan recently offered his perspective on a variety of timely issues, including the speed and agility gains of moving to a virtualized environment, the evolving challenges of data protection, and the relationship between virtualization and cloud computing.

In its May 2010 research note on x86 server virtualization infrastructure, Gartner opens with the assertion that "...the market has a number of viable choices." But its Magic Quadrant shows that VMware has stretched out its lead like Usain Bolt into the top-right corner of the top-right quadrant (combination of execution and vision), with the rest of the quadrant noticeably vacant.

Why is that important? Last year, the number of virtual machines passed its tipping point of outnumbering physical hosts in the world. This was a combined result of a sudden drop in the number of physical hosts and the increasing popularity of virtual machines. With customers reporting capital cost savings up to 60% and energy savings up to 80%, it seems likely that the trend will persist into the next few years. This year, while physical hosting remained relatively flat under the 7.5 million mark, virtual machines pushed up past 9 million, and they're expected to rise to more than 12 million within the next two years. This represents a steady march toward the flexibility and autonomy promised by the ubiquity of IT-as-a-service.

As the leader in this area, VMware counts all of the Fortune 100 among its 200,000 customers and was recognized last year with the Wall Street Journal's Technology Innovation Award. Under the leadership of CIO Mark Egan's global information technology group, VMware's strategy has been to emphasize its capacity to both improve agility and cut costs.  Mark brings more than 30 years of experience in information technology to VMware, most recently as partner of the StrataFusion Group, an executive-level consultancy. Prior to that, Mark served as CIO at Symantec Corporation for six years during the company's meteoric rise from a $600 million consumer publisher to the $5 billion market leader in security. In the process, he managed the company's technology integration through 28 separate acquisitions.

Mark holds a master's degree in finance and international business from the University of San Diego and a bachelor's degree in computer sciences from the University of Clarion in Pennsylvania. In our 10-question interview, he shared his insights on virtualization.

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1. Jeff: Historically, cost savings has been one of the key reasons for companies to consider moving to virtualized environments. Are speed and performance beginning to eclipse that now or do you see cost savings still being the main reason to move from a physical to a virtualized environment? Mark: If you look back over the last couple of years, one of the things we've been able to do consistently for our customers is save them money. That has always been a key focus for us, and I don't see that changing, even as we emerge from this economic downturn. I am optimistic that things are turning around now and will continue to improve, so we're looking at how we can continue to grow that top line and grow the business.

At the same time, I do see a growing emphasis on things like speed and agility. The question I hear is how can we get things done and get them done faster? So while there is still an eye on costs, speed is something my customers and peers are talking more and more about, and this is certainly an area where virtualization can help.

In the big picture, we talk about three phases of this virtualization journey. In the first phase, virtualization proves out when you start to see capital being saved. Then, you get to the second phase, where you start to involve mission-critical applications, the things that really run your business. Finally comes the third phase, where it becomes all about speed, optimization, and time to market. Different companies and industries are at different places along that path. Right now, we see many that are in that second phase moving toward the third. Technology is a function of company size and culture; some companies move quickly through these phases and some take more time.

Every well-run IT group is going to put emphasis on being cost efficient, and virtualization can be an important piece of that. But we certainly have to look forward to being fast, nimble, and able to react to changes going on right now. Virtualization is a key tenet for cloud computing, which is a big part of that change. It's a similar path we're seeing for both cloud and virtualization, where it starts with cost savings and becomes a style and a way of doing business.

2. Jeff: You've talked about the importance of keeping individuals at the foundation of the people, process, and technology pyramid. How do you go about finding and keeping the right people? Mark: The truth is that success happens because of good people. CIOs joke about not talking too loudly about how great our people are because of the risk of their being poached. But in particular, we look for people who are broad in their skills. The notion of an employee who is only a system administrator in Linux or in Windows, or is a storage administrator or network engineer, is blurring. We're looking for someone who is all of those things, a cloud engineer or a cloud analyst, because in the new world they need to know all those environments. We also look for people who embrace and enjoy change, who want variety and want to do new things. The job description is not Linux administrator. It's someone who knows Windows, storage, and networking, and getting that person can be difficult.

One way is by putting training programs in place with the staff we have today to get our people educated in all those areas. We put a good deal of emphasis on certifications and training. Another way is by getting students right out of school who bring a lot of innovative ideas into the environment. The combination of those two things allows us to get the best of both worlds. We also have career ladders where you don't have to go into a management path to advance. There is a director-level equivalent who is an individual contributor. So if someone wants to be a senior-level architect within the IT group, they can choose to do that rather than being a manager. Our picture of what technology is going to look like in the next three to five years is probably going to change, and we want people to be able to make good choices on that journey.

3. Jeff: Related to more choices in technology, there is an emphasis on making applications compatible with more devices, like smartphones or tablets, or with different browsers. Do you see more emphasis toward specific compatibility and customization or to maintaining a general ambivalence? Mark: I would say a little more in favor of ambivalence. We know devices are going to keep getting smaller and smarter and changing very rapidly. What's driving that is not the enterprise but the consumer. Lifecycles and new versions are coming down to a matter of months, and there's a great deal of pressure on us as IT professionals to have all of our applications run on simple, easy-to-use devices. So if you think of social-media apps, for example, how do we take some of these systems with a Soviet-era interface and make them look like Facebook and be as easy to use as Twitter? I believe the user interface trumps functionality. To give an example from what we're doing internally, we've got two suppliers and one clearly has more functionality but its UI is horrible. We've opted to use the one with the better UI just because of the adoption perspective. We're willing to give up a little bit of functionality.

It's coming back to a consumer-driven orientation. You don't take a class to learn how to use Facebook. If you can't just sit down and start using it, it's not an effective tool. That's what we have to do as IT professionals; we have to develop applications that run on any device and are extremely easy to use --great user interface, rich experience, all those things. I'm not smart enough to know exactly what device is going to win in the next couple of years, but it will be one I can carry in my hand and that's easy to use.

4. Jeff: How do you see the relative importance of Windows and its continuing change with new releases? Mark: In the short term, we work with our customers to manage their existing environments and make them as easy as possible to work in. Going forward, our customers are looking for new options, and I don't think it will be an entirely Windows world. Especially as you get into these new mobile devices, it's not as relevant. This goes back to the idea that what is popular with consumers is what is going to be popular in the enterprise. And you just don't see a lot of Windows on smartphones or the iPad or Android. So again, it's difficult to predict what the future holds. But what consumers and, specifically, our customers are looking for is speed, innovation, and great user interface. 5. Jeff: Most companies aren't going to have the kind of scalability requirements you saw at Symantec in the six years when you went from 600 million to five billion in revenues, but how did you keep up during that period? Mark: I believe the bigger challenges are more around people and process than around technology. This was an organization that just scaled tenfold in five years. When I joined VMware, we had to make a number of changes to the leadership team, and it needed to scale through the growth we were seeing. On the process side, it's like putting brakes on a car. You put brakes on a car so it can go faster, not slower. You can get by without a lot of basic IT processes, like change control and release management, until you reach a certain size. Then suddenly it hits you that, "Hey, this stuff is really important and we're just not scalable." So it's not that the technology is unimportant, but more important is having the right people who know how to deal with change, growth, and scale and deal with mergers and acquisitions. That's where I've placed the greatest concern, both at Symantec and here at VMware. The emphasis on people is followed by process. Having basic processes is like the grease that keeps everything moving.

Don't get me wrong, though; the technology is important. I work closely with the R&D group, and I'm fortunate to have a lot of brilliant engineers developing these great products we use. We have 97% of our environment virtualized and all on the x86 environment. So from a technology perspective, we are running a highly efficient environment, and we're writing all our applications in the Spring framework for Java, which is very fast and natural, a great experience. So I do have the benefits of outstanding technology here, and it's a true complement to the people and process side.

6. Jeff: You mentioned the x86, which has been a primary focus, and that you are now 97% virtualized now. Are there other platforms or technologies - such as Spring - that you see becoming increasingly important for you? Mark: As far as servers, about two-thirds of our environment is Linux and the other third is Windows. It's pretty cost-effective to run on x86. We work with a large number of providers, both in our applications and the infrastructure. We have no plans to move from the x86. As far as getting to 100%, it's currently a project underway for us. We expect to get there by next year and then continue to move forward. Another area we're expecting to increase significantly next year is desktop virtualization for more and more employees. 7. Jeff: In discussions about the cloud, one hurdle that comes up consistently for IT executives is security. Do you see this for virtualization also? Mark: You have many of the same kinds of issues and challenges. There have been a couple of interesting developments lately in the security picture. One is that the threats have shifted from ones of broad-based notoriety that you used to see in the news to highly targeted attacks. You remember hearing about the Slammer and Code Red worms with million-dollar losses, but now you don't hear about those as much. Now it's organized crime that is quietly stealing a couple of dollars from each of us as we do business online.

From an IT perspective, what we need to do is protect our data. We need to shift from just protecting the infrastructure to also securing the data. What these guys are going to do is slip in through your firewall and then start looking for anything in the enterprise that might be valuable. Having application security is first and foremost. You don't want someone finding something like credit card information or bank credentials, or in a technology company, it might be stealing ideas and IP. The shift is toward guarding our data more vigorously. In a virtual world, you have policy around how you communicate with the VM, and there is the ability to segment the entire environment into multiple virtual environments using technology rather than by using a firewall. So there are similar concepts and challenges; you still have to protect that critical data and the critical assets of the company.

8. Jeff: Of the various pieces in a virtualized portfolio -- database, networks, desktops, and storage -- where do you see the greatest potential? Mark: Clearly, that has been on the server side. If you have 10 servers and can get that down to two or three servers, you can have a great ROI in terms of less hardware, less space, less administration, and so on. But it's expanding to other datacenter assets. For example, storage is a primary area where I would expect to find potential gains. What is also becoming much more prominent is the desktop. If you think about the number of desktops in relation to the number of servers, it's an area where we see major gains for a lot of our customers. Many employees who have desktops don't need them for the more standard kinds of activity they are performing. What it comes down to is automation and management. The time spent on troubleshooting and fixing someone's PC or laptop can be saved by just putting that all on a server through server virtualization and a thin client. This is a specific area where we are expecting to see the gains continuing to grow. 9. Jeff: How would you describe the relationship between virtualization and cloud computing, especially in terms of perceptions and acceptance? Mark: When I think of cloud computing, I consider it a style of computing. Some of the resources are in your datacenter, which would be more of a private cloud, and some are with a third party in a public cloud. You can access it via a browser, it is scalable, you can move the resources around, and you pay for only what you use. Virtualization is really a key tenet of that. So to get to that cloud-computing style, one of the first steps is to virtualize. Virtualization gives you that whole scaling of your resources. If you think of the cloud as an umbrella with different components, virtualization is one of the key pieces that allows you to get to that style. 10. Jeff: How would you describe the unique value proposition VMware brings to the table over its virtualization competitors? Mark: The market has clearly spoken in terms of establishing VMware as the leader in this space. The bigger issue is what are the next steps? Where do we go from here? We see a new "stack" emerging for the cloud. The first layer is the end-user environment, then the application platform, and then finally the underlying infrastructure.

In the end-user layer, our view is that you should have a device of choice and be able to securely access all the resources you need. That device is going to change, but it should have a great interface and a great user experience. In the application layer, there are three separate components. You have legacy applications, which you will probably want to optimize. You also have SaaS applications, and you have new applications. We would recommend that new apps use platforms like Spring or Ruby, which are as fast, agile, and flexible as Facebook and Twitter. For infrastructure, you use both private and public cloud resources. Ideally, you want to be able to move your resources back and forth in a hybrid model depending on demand. Thinking forward to what things will look like in the future, we clearly see this new stack emerging, and VMware is the only company with this unique value proposition across all three of those areas, as well as addressing how you comprehensively manage your resources.

Mark Egan is the CIO of VMware and is based in San Francisco. He wrote The Executive Guide to Information Security and enjoys kayaking, bicycling, and triathlons. You can reach him at

Jeff Cerny has been interviewing top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008. He is the author of Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation. You can reach him at or follow him on twitter @jeffcerny.