VMware’s app modernization chief: ‘We’ve put to bed the debate about containers versus virtual machines’

VMware Inc. kicked off the Spring One virtual conference today, celebrating the Spring Java development framework whose commercial version it picked up with the acquisition of Pivotal Software Inc. late last year.

It’s also an anniversary party of sorts for Tanzu, the application modernization portfolio that VMware introduced in August 2019. With Tanzu, VMware threw its full support behind the portable operating environments called containers that were once considered an existential threat to its flagship virtualization business, as well as the Kubernetes container orchestrator.

Last spring, the company installed Ajay Patel, who had engineered VMware’s multiple public cloud partnerships, as general manager of the business that encompasses Tanzu. In this exclusive SiliconANGLE interview, Patel reflects on the progress the business unit has made over the past year and his intention to build an ecosystem around the modernization portfolio going forward.

Why is Spring so central to VMware’s modernization thrust?

Spring is evolving from a framework to a platform with projects like Spring Boot and Spring Cloud. The work we’re doing tying those into Kubernetes is about building the future distributed application platform. Spring helps developers build cloud native applications without learning new tools. Tanzu then becomes the best place to run those applications. It’s putting power back into the hands of the developer to do things that were previously done in standalone products.

Spring was always central to the Pivotal strategy, but I don’t think we did a good job of embracing it. For the last year VMware been focused on bringing Spring and Tanzu together.

Why is application modernization such a hot topic right now?

The first attempt at public cloud was about rewriting all applications for the cloud, which didn’t make economic sense. A lot of VMware’s value proposition [in the early days] was taking what’s on premises and moving it easily to cloud.

With acquisition of Pivotal we shifted to talk about modernization. It’s not just about moving to cloud but using public cloud a runtime and selectively bringing in cloud services.

Application modernization is a spectrum from lift-and-shift to rebuilding or just going to [software as a service]. It’s the recognition that public cloud is not one-size-fits-all. It’s about both modernizing your portfolio and your development practices.

How has COVID-19 affected the drive to modernize?

What used to be multiyear projects now have to get done in days or weeks. For example, one of our customers is Fiserv, which had to rapidly develop an application for the Paycheck Protection Program in just eight days. Imagine doing that.

Another is Space Force. Their applications were taking three years to develop and six months to put into production. They chose Tanzu and Pivotal Labs’ services group to help them set up a platform and a practice that looks at the whole supply chain of software for how to take an idea to production. New applications drive impact and that only accelerated with COVID.

What have been the highlights of Tanzu’s first year?

There are three. The first was making Kubernetes mainstream as part of the vSphere platform. We’ve put to bed the debate about containers versus virtual machines. In a single environment you can run both.

The second was bringing Pivotal into fold. Part of that was creating the Tanzu portfolio that spans the application lifecycle and goes beyond Java; we also support the top four or five languages out there.

The third was Pivotal Labs and taking its services mainstream, so it’s not just about product but about customer success with application modernization at the core and making those applications available wherever the customer wants to run them.

How dependent is Tanzu on customers’ adoption of Kubernetes?

It’s central. We look at Kubernetes as basically the new dial tone. It provides a level of abstraction that’s great for infrastructure but also easy for developers to use. It allows you to leverage the power of cloud regardless of where the resource runs.

The management layer above that – Tanzu Mission Control – is a single control plane in the cloud that lets you manage complex distributed applications with visibility, security and availability built in with policies at the core. All the competitors in this market want to provide a management plane. The management of Kubernetes will be the battleground.

Despite Kubernetes’ popularity, actual deployment in production applications is still pretty low. How quickly do you see that changing?

You’re right about production but if you look at the number of organizations that have pilot projects, that number is going up exponentially. The question is how to make [Kubernetes] easy. It’s too low-level an abstraction for the average developer. It’s only good for the Netflix ponytail developer as I call it. That’s where Spring makes magic happen. It gives enterprises a high-level abstraction.

What gaps remain in the Tanzu portfolio?

The spectrum of continuous integration/continuous development in open source continues to be pretty broad, although there are leaders like Microsoft popping up with GitLab and GitHub. It’s not about gaps so much as how to make the [independent software vendor] community more tightly integrated as a community, not just with VMware.

This next year we’ll focus on bringing the ISV community forward by providing a toolchain they can plug into and a layer for end-to-end management. Customers are yearning for a neutral partner that lets customers and ISVs leverage any cloud. That’s an element of our strategy that I don’t think Pivotal was aggressively driving and I want to drive that.

Doesn’t your strategy put you in conflict with your cloud partners?

I thought initially it would, because we compete with the compute teams. But we also both acknowledge that it’s not one-size-fits-all. In a world of subscriptions it’s about who’s capturing the workloads. Sometimes I’ll make money on runtime and sometimes they’ll make money.

VMware is not going away and with 70 million existing workloads and 90% of the enterprise having significant VMware infrastructure, it’s better to partner with us. So yes, [Amazon Web Services] is my one of my biggest partners and also one of my top competitors. Competitive dynamics are driving partnerships. And if you think about one company that’s sitting across all clouds, has all platforms, has Spring and a Kubernetes community, the answer is VMware.

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