The best subtitle for this continuing discussion about the merits of various “free” hypervisors would be the famous quote: the truth shall make you free, but first it shall make you angry.  An even better subtitle might be a “modest proposal: why VMware should enact a 50% or greater license fee on all backup and recovery solutions charging for VMware data protection when they are used with ‘free ESXi.'”

By far the most read and discussed blog posting I’ve ever written was the “Why VMware is Committing Corporate Suicide (Whistling Past the Graveyeard).” I appreciate the comments – several of which were made publicly and quite a few more made privately via e-mail.  I thought that readers raised some excellent questions – and while I tried to answer every question directly, I thought that it was only fair – and better yet, pretty fascinating – to raise the counterpoints that others made and address those thoroughly.

VMware and “Free ESXi”

My thesis in the original blog post was pretty simple: I stated that I thought that VMware in crippling their “free ESXi” software by eliminating the ability to use features such as PowerCLI and vStorage/VDDK backup was leaving themselves vulnerable to Microsoft’s Hyper-V Server (particularly Hyper-V Server R2 SP1) which is unrestricted in terms of these lower level features.  I encouraged VMware to open up their “free ESXi” product to be more competitive at the “free” level so as to blunt the increasing attacks that I’ve seen occurring within the small and medium business (SMB) space.

First, let me try to be even clearer about my motivations in this.  I work at a company committed to affordable (not an advertisement – you’ll see why that matters in a minute) heterogeneous data protection.  We protect a lot of operating systems, applications, virtualization environments, storage platforms, and what have you.  As a reader noted, my company has a vested interest in this – our backup, archiving, and disaster recovery appliances would be more useful if we could use the vStorage/VDDK APIs to protect “free ESXi.”  Yep – absolutely true – and I tried not to hide that fact.

But what caused me to first write the blog post was that I have now had a dozen or so buyers and customers tell me that they were going to Hyper-V Server due to cost issues with VMware.  When I asked them about the “free ESXi” issue with them, what each told me was two-fold.

First, by the time they got through implementing they’d be using the “virtualization stacks” of both companies and thus were engaged in a cost argument upstream which Microsoft tends to win (note: there are many good blog posts out there comparing costs with a lot of discussion concerning technical features – and what I’d note to you in going through them is that the technical arguments of a few years ago concerning the superiority of VMware are getting whittled down over time – VMware is still technically superior but the differentiation is less than it used to be and will arguably be less so in another year or two.)

Second, what buyers and customers told me was that “free ESXi” didn’t have significant advantages over Hyper-V Server R2 SP1 (another note: please note that I am specifying NOT the Windows 2008 Hyper-V role but instead the standalone Hyper-V Server.)  When I call out the vStorage/VDDK interface as an advantage for VMware, what I got told repeatedly was that it only worked on “licensed ESXi” and ESX.  That much I knew.  When I probed further, here’s what I began understanding – that buyers and customers were using the “free ESXi” not being “free” to build a case for how VMware would act in the future – and they were deciding not just based on the current cost/benefits case for VMware versus Microsoft but were using the “free ESXi” to build a mental model of how VMware would be operating in the future.  This is what caused me to write this post – because I think that VMware is in more danger than they perceive that they are.

For what it’s worth, our answer to this “free ESXi” lack of host operating system (physical layer) vStorage/VDDK backup support is pretty simple – just run the agent in the guest operating system (virtual machine.)  But the point here is that VMware took a significant advantage that they have over the VSS-based methodology Microsoft currently has available for Hyper-V and removed that from contention in the evaluation vehicle.

Okay – with that said, let’s get at some of the best objections.   Rom, in a great comment, noted that companies serious about virtualization would have to take into account a long list of increased technical capabilities up and down the virtualization stack (from management to the hypervisor) that VMware possessed.  I don’t disagree per se, but I actually conceded early on in the initial post that VMware was superior technically.  However, I think that many technology leaders fail to grasp the fact that Microsoft, in its typical fast-follower fashion, is decreasing those technical gaps and is offering to in essence allow customers to do virtualization at a much lower cost.  Each customer is going to be different – some will pay for additional functionality, some won’t – but overall the trend is troubling given how often Microsoft has won against the early leaders through these same tactics.

To Rom’s other points – that companies like Unitrends would rather customers pay for the data protection but not the hypervisor – as I noted responding to the comment it’s a salient point.  However, what I’d note is that I’d be willing to pay 100% of my VMware-specific license fees for VMware.  (IMPORTANT: This is a trick – my company doesn’t charge to support VMware – so 100% of nothing is nothing – in other words, I’m not risking much! 🙂 )

Here’s what I’d note in addition.  We have a lot of customers who use Windows.  But we also have a lot that use Linux – both with subscription services but also the completely free versions.  You can argue whether Windows or Linux is technically superior – but if you ask Microsoft if they wish they had pursued a different strategy years ago with respect to Linux as a competitor, any honest person there would say “heck yes!”  The fact that Red Hat Enterprise Linux has some fees associated with it doesn’t change the fact that Linux, while not crushing Windows Server, certainly took a big bite out of it – and honestly, it didn’t have to do so.

I thought that Nlandas called it out more eloquently than I did when he stated

“I think that if VMware just opens the backup API on ESXi, they’ll gain additional mind-share in the free hypervisor market. What I mean by that is, that there are a lot of small businesses and even home IT geeks,exploring virtualization that can’t really afford a full VMWare solution — yet. However, if you give them a free hypervisor with backup support, you’ll be encouraging them to marry themselves to the VMWare brand.”

One other note that I’d make in response to a very insightful post made by V. Wolf concerning Microsoft’s lack of management tools – I almost agree.  I completely agree that VMware has an advantage – not just on management tools but on ease of use (and I take that seriously given that this is a huge component of total cost of ownership and thus return on investment.)  I think that there are two issues.  The first, as someone anonymously said, is that there are an awful lot of engineers and technicians out there who are more comfortable with Microsoft’s user interfaces.  However, and I think this is more serious in the long-term, the issue I have is that Microsoft will keep chipping away at the technical differentiation – all the while getting more mindshare (as Nlandas noted) with their “free” Hyper-V Server.

Are Hyper-V, XenServer, KVM, and Other Hypervisors Ready for Prime Time?

I got a lot of private e-mail concerning this.  And while the response has been overwhelmingly positive, there were a two folks who said they didn’t think ANY of the hypervisor platforms were ready for prime time except for VMware.  Are Hyper-V, XenServer, KVM, and the others ready to take advantage of a weakness in VMware’s dominant market share?  I think so – but I think that we won’t see it first in big global 1000 companies with a ton of IT staff – I think we’re going to see it in small and medium businesses.  I’ve read studies from the leading analysts that call out that there’s a lot of consideration for alternatives from even the largest existing VMware companies due to a concern with respect to licensing costs.

Is there any answer to this?  Heck, I’ll make one “modest proposal” – and unlike Swift, I’ll do so quite seriously – to VMware.  Enact a 50% license fee for add-on VMware protection on any vendor that uses vStorage/VDDK APIs with a “free ESXi” implementation.  Yes – I realize Unitrends would have an advantage against other backup vendors – but the upside is that if everyone drove their price for VMware protection to $0 then VMware would win by having free backup – or they’d have a revenue stream based on the usage of these APIs by the “normal” backup vendors.

Conclusion: VMware and Unitrends

One last note for anyone who thinks that I’m a “hater” – cleverly masked – of VMware.  We offer a trial virtual appliance on only one platform – VMware.  I’m really hoping that VMware gets aggressive and has an incredibly long and successful (or even more successful, given its success to date) tenure.