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Admins, get ready for container-friendly VMware Photon

VMware made its name virtualizing servers and later with other proprietary technology, but it's reaching out to developers with its container-friendly, open source Project Photon.

Ready or not, here they come.

That's the message for data center operations pros who are comfortable with their VMware environments today, but soon will be confronted with the challenges of supporting cloud-native applications.

The challenge for VMware will be to offer new functionality to existing customers, while coming up with ways to speed deployment for potential new customers who are increasingly driving new technologies into enterprise IT use.

At the heart of that move is a new operating system, Photon OS, and platform, Photon Platform, designed for cloud-native applications. If successful, the transition from server virtualization to wider support of cloud-native applications on an open source operating system could find fans in developers and operations teams alike.

VMware's effort to support cloud-native applications and containers has started small and kept relatively quiet, according to Gary Chen, analyst at IDC.

VMware's push into container-focused platforms and operating systems means the company is basically starting from scratch, Chen said. It will mean new customers and the company largely won't be able to sell to its existing install base.

It is a very important transition for VMware to make, but it will be very challenging.
Gary Chenanalyst, IDC

"It is a very important transition for VMware to make, but it will be very challenging," Chen said. Photon OS and Project Photon are part of a two-pronged strategy from VMware to go after container workloads. VSphere Integrated Containers lets IT shops deploy container workloads on vSphere. The second part of the strategy is the VMware Photon Platform, including Photon OS 1.0, which is now out of beta and generally available.

One route through which the company may appeal to developers is embedding the Photon Platform with products from EMC Federation sister company Pivotal Software, which has gained some momentum, as it is more targeted for developers.

"It is hard to go to a DevOps guy and have them really care about infrastructure," Chen said.

One early user of Photon OS thinks VMware is on the right track. Developers are using desktop-based VMware tools, such as Fusion and Workstation, to develop applications that those same developers then want on the smoothest path to test and production, said Philip Buckley-Mellor, a designer at BT Group PLC in London.

Photon gives VMware a way to support and manage container-based and cloud-native applications, as well as a stronger draw for developers. "Because it is VMware, you can have one of the Workstation-based software and develop it in Photon and migrate from there to vSphere or to vCloud Air," Buckley-Mellor said.

Operations professionals have various levels of knowledge about containers, with some vaguely aware of containers and others with misconceptions, Chen said.

Enterprise use of containers may soon reflect that of server virtualization a few years ago, said Brad Meiseles, senior director of engineering for cloud-native apps at VMware, speaking at the recent VMware User Group UserCon in Boston. "It won't just be a CIO-driven thing; it will be something where CEOs will ask, 'Why haven't we containerized yet? I've heard it is the thing to do.'"

Concerns still remain about running containers in production, he said. The push will come from developers, who find an easy workflow that helps create consistency in an environment because all of the dependencies are packaged.

VMware said it has customers running production workloads on the Photon OS Tech Preview release, but would not publish the names.

VMware's aim to find a place for containers makes sense to Ihab Tarazi, CTO for data center operator Equinix Inc., in Redwood City, Calif. "Every single one of our customers is using containers," although not yet for production workloads, he told SearchDataCenter.

Photon OS initially won't have a place in most enterprises where the private infrastructure is largely built on VMs, but Tarazi said he foresees containers underpinning a standard architecture for all applications and all clouds in the long term.

VMware vSphere Integrated Containers is a way to use containers with existing tools and infrastructure, and "for 99% of enterprises, that is the right solution today," Tarazi said. For enterprises building new architecture from scratch, it should be built based on containers to support new technologies, he said.

Building a Linux-based OS to support containers also represents VMware's efforts to support new technologies, looking at the traditional IT needs of enterprises toward what they will need as they push ahead with digital transformations. First and foremost, that means living in a multicloud world, and VMware believes it still can play a central role.

The company "made our bones transforming data centers," said Paul Lembo, manager for solutions engineering at VMware, "but we are crossing the chasm into becoming the control plane for a multicloud world. We have to support our customers wherever they go."

That also means being ready to support various internet of things applications, from thermostats and touchscreen vending machines to vehicles. VMware is in talks with a large car manufacturer about putting agents on every car, Lembo said.

"You need a different kind of infrastructure built for that scale -- it has to be cloud-native," he said. "We are going to have to scale in a way like we never have before."

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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