When you live in the age of containers, and your company name starts with “VM”, standing still isn’t an option if you want to survive. Such is the case with VMWare, which has taken steps to leverage its massive install base in order to not be obliterated by public cloud and container technology developments. This article examines VMWare Tanzu in particular, a suite of products that aims to keep that big customer base engaged and move them into a cloud native future.
VMWare is well known as a pioneer in virtualization. From the workstation based (Windows and Linux) VMWare Workstation back in 1998, to server oriented hypervisors (ESX/GSX), to vCenter to manage collections of ESX hypervisors (now known as VSphere). VMWare briefly entered the public cloud space around 2014 with vCloud Air, a hybrid cloud play that connected cloud based infrastructure as a service (IaaS) to on premises VSphere installations. More recently, VMWare has partnered with public cloud providers to supply infrastructure for their hybrid cloud strategy, upon which Tanzu is built. Finally we arrive at Tanzu (formerly Pivotal Platform), which uses Kubernetes as a cloud neutral application platform which can run across on-premises VSphere environments to AWS, GCP, and Azure (AWS being the only non-preview option).
What Is Tanzu?
Tanzu is a suite of products that helps users run and manage multiple Kubernetes (K8S) clusters across public and private “clouds”. While introducing Kubernetes as a first class VMWare product, it still keeps strong ties to the VMWare virtualization portfolio. It consists of:
- Spring Runtime – app framework
- Catalog – app catalog
- Application Service – CI/CD
- Kubernetes Grid – Kubernetes distribution
- Mission Control – The ‘single pane’ of glass for managing multiple K8S clusters.
- Observability – Monitoring/operations
This is in keeping with the typical VMWare approach of providing comprehensive toolkits, in this case covering software development through monitoring across distributed Kubernetes clusters. Much of the portfolio is repackaged existing products, including Spring, BOSH, Pivotal Platform and others. By using VSphere as the underlying platform for hosting Kubernetes cluster, VMWare can provide a consistent developer experience from private datacenter, to public cloud, and even edge cloud.
Why The Need For Tanzu?
One could write off Tanzu as VMWare jumping on the Kubernetes bandwagon, and given the momentum behind K8S, it makes sense to jump on. In the case of VMWare the move goes a bit deeper. Since it’s early hegemony over all virtualization (limited to desktops at the time), they have been chased in various directions by competitors. When VirtualBox appeared as a free alternative to VMWare Workstation back in the 2000s, VMWare expanded into the datacenter and dominated virtualization there. The arrival of Openstack in the mid 2010s as an existential threat, along with the emergence of significant profits in the public cloud space inspired a move to create their own public cloud: VCloud Air. VCloud Air fizzled, although so did Openstack, which users still struggle to deploy and manage.
Having been beat back in the public cloud, VMWare has adopted a strategy of providing VSphere using AWS provided infrastructure, with possible expansion to other cloud providers. With AWS (and others) providing private cloud expansions of their offerings (e.g. AWS Outposts), the viability of providing VMWare virtualization as a service seems to have diminishing prospects. However, along with the explosion of profitability in the public clouds has come the emergence of containerized applications, which in some ways directly challenges virtualization itself.
Kubernetes, the leading container management platform, renders the infrastructure it runs on (virtual or otherwise) largely irrelevant to applications. So by keeping their large customer base engaged with the latest cloud native technologies, VMWare also simultaneously makes VSphere less relevant. But the relevance of hypervisors in the age of containers is questionable anyway, so they are really moving in the only direction available.
Tanzu vs Best of Breed
So far, this Tanzu thing sounds great. Particularly for VMWare customers looking to ease into the containerized future. There are advantages to using a single vendor’s ecosystem. One throat to choke. One massive bill to pay. Fewer integration headaches. You give up best of breed tools for a homogenized stack that is tuned to satisfy the average VMWare customer, more or less. The goal of using Kubernetes as a distributed application platform is fine, but once that leap has been made, what is the point of being limited to VMWare virtualization? One of the main ideas behind Kubernetes is providing an infrastructure neutral platform for containerized applications. What if you don’t like Tanzu monitoring? What if you prefer Terraform to BOSH? What if your ideal platform contains more than just Kubernetes?
The contrasting ethos in the open source community, and typified by tools like Cloudify, is best of breed composability. Build your own technology platform from parts that make sense for your business, rather than whatever the “average” VMWare customer is. When something better comes along, plug it in and maintain your competitive advantage. Don’t do dumb things just because your proscribed tool chain demands it. The dynamism of the software platform marketplace requires choices that emphasize flexibility.