VMware Lures Cloud Startups And Developers With New Container Tech, Subscription-Based Licensing

VMware counts some of the world's largest companies as customers, but now that it's embracing Linux containers, it's focusing on getting smaller ones on board, too.

At its VMworld conference earlier this month, VMware rolled out a preview of its container technology for existing customers, along with new container technology it hopes will attract developers and startups that might otherwise run their apps on the Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure public clouds.

"This is about capturing the attention, the mind share and interest of developers that are building [cloud] applications," Mark Lohmeyer, vice president of products for VMware's cloud platform business unit, said in an interview with CRN at VMworld.

[Related: VMware Shows Off Shiny New Container Technology In Push To Attract Cloud Developers]

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The version for existing customers is called vSphere Integrated Containers, and it allows containers to run inside virtual machines. But according to partners, the far more interesting part of VMware's container strategy is Photon, a new Linux-based operating system that's designed for running apps in containers.

Developers love containers because they're smaller and more lightweight than virtual machines, which means they can fit more apps onto server hardware. Containers also let developers build apps and move them quickly into production, on any type of infrastructure, without making changes to their code.

Photon uses a "new, lightweight form of virtualization" that is separate and distinct from vSphere server virtualization, Lohmeyer said.

Photon is designed for building cloud apps that withstand infrastructure failures and that scale up and down based on demand levels. Photon supports popular container formats like Docker, Rocket and Garden, a technology used by Pivotal's Cloud Foundry Platform-as-a-Service.

Part of the reason VMware is embracing containers is to attract more startups to its vCloud Air public cloud, which is still on the fringes of the public cloud market despite being launched more than two years ago.

"One of the absolute targets of the Photon platform in particular is startups that are building things from the ground up," said Lohmeyer.

This approach has worked well for Amazon Web Services, the public cloud leader, which has become the go-to cloud for startups that don't have the wherewithal to build their own infrastructure. A big part of AWS' appeal is being able to pay for only what you use and sign up with a credit card.

For VMware, which sell software primarily through enterprise licensing agreements, this has necessitated a change of thinking.

VMware is planning to offer a subscription-based pricing model for Photon -- which Lohmeyer described as "more pay-as-you-go" -- for smaller customers that want to kick the tires on the technology. Most of VMware's larger customers purchase software through enterprise licensing agreements, so this is a significant shift.

VMware, Palo Alto, Calif., has traditionally focused more on IT operations and infrastructure tasks, but Photon is a concentrated play for the hearts and minds of cloud developers and startups that aren't currently customers. If VMware succeeds, it could establish itself as a bona fide powerhouse in the public cloud market.

Containers are a key technology for Devops, the term which describes how developers and operations teams work closely to accelerate deployment and updating of apps.

CenturyLink, a VMware service provider partner, is in the process of moving all the services it offers into a self-service, platform-style offering. Dave Shacochis, vice president of cloud platform at CenturyLink, told CRN the only way to achieve this is to have a devops team supporting the effort.

"You're not going to build a globally scalable, fully programmable, self-service platform by having a product manager write requirements and throw them over a wall to an engineer to install infrastructure, and then to a software team to develop software," Shacochis said.

Blaine Kahle, director of engineering at Five Nines Technology Group, a Lincoln, Neb.-based VMware partner, said he's not surprised to see VMware embrace containers because they're essentially an evolution from existing application virtualization technology.

Kahle thinks VMware's enterprise customers could use containers to reclaim some of the control they've lost to "shadow IT," by bringing developer-directed workloads back into the private infrastructure that were previously lost to other cloud vendors.

"This is a shift in dollars back from [operational expenditure] to [capital expenditure] for the additional infrastructure needed for those workloads," Kahle said. "But the overall dollars spent should come down, and control is regained."

Containers have great potential because of their portability, which plays well with VMware's own hybrid cloud strategy, according to Lohmeyer.

"You could start with your app in the public cloud, and then when it gets to a certain size, you bring it in house for cost reasons," said Lohmeyer. "Or you can start on premise and then burst for additional demand in the public cloud."

VMware is planning to launch a private beta of Photon soon, and the technology is expected to be available to customers in 2016, according to Lohmeyer.