Tuesday, October 07, 2008

VMWare's Most Important Cloud Research? It Might Not Be Technology

I was kind of aimlessly wandering around my Google Reader feeds the other day when I came across an interview with Carl Eschenbach, VMWare's executive vice president of worldwide field operations, titled "Q&A: VMware's Eschenbach Outlines Channel Opportunities In The Virtual Cloud". (Thanks to Rich Miller of Telematique for the link.) I started reading the article thinking it was going to be all about how to sell vCloud, but throughout the article, it was painfully clear that a hybrid cloud concept will cause some real disruption in the VMWare channel.

The core problem is this:

  1. Today, VMWare solution providers enjoy tremendous margins selling not only VMWare products, but associated services (often 5 to 7 times the revenue in services than software), and server, storage and networking hardware required to support a virtualized data center.

  2. However, vCloud introduces the concept of offloading some of that computing to a capacity service provider, in a relationship where the solution provider acts merely as a middleman for the initial transaction.

  3. Ostensibly, the solution provider then gets a one time fee, but is squeezed out of recurring revenue for the service.

In other words, VMWare's channel is not necessarily pumped about the advent of cloud computing.

To Eschenbach's credit, he acknowledges that this could be the case:
"We think there's a potential. And we're doing some studies right now with some of our larger solution providers, looking at whether there's a possibility that they not only sell VMware SKUs into the enterprise, but if that enterprise customer wants to take advantage of cloud computing from a service provider that our VARs, our resellers, actually sell the service providers' SKUs. So, not only are they selling into the enterprise data center, but now if that customer wants to take advantage of additional capacity that exists outside the four walls of the data center, why couldn't our solution providers, our VIP resellers, resell a SKU that Verizon (NYSE:VZ) or Savvis or SunGard or BT is offering into that customer. So they can have the capability of selling into the enterprise cloud and the service provider cloud on two different SKUs and still maintain the relationship with the customer. "
In a follow up question, Eschenbach declares:
"[I]t's not a lot different from a solution provider today selling into an account a VMware license that's perpetual. Now, if you're selling a perpetual license and you're moving away from that and [your customer is] buying capacity on demand from the cloud, every time they need to do that, if they have an arrangement through a VAR or a solution provider to get access to that capacity, and they're buying the SKU from them, they're still engaged. "
Does anyone else get the feeling that Eschenbach is talking about turning solution providers into cloud capacity brokerages? Furthermore, that such a solution provider now acts as a very inefficient capacity brokerage? Specifically, choosing the service that provides them with the best margins and locking customers into those providers, instead of the service that gives the customer the most bang for the buck on any given day? Doesn't this create an even better opportunity for the more pure, independent cloud brokerages to sell terms and pricing that favor the customer?

I think VMWare may have a real issue on their hands, in which maintaining their amazing ecosystem of implementation partners may give way to more direct partnerships with specific cloud brokerages (for capacity) and system integrators (for consultative advice on optimizing between private and commercial capacity). The traditional infrastructure VAR gets left in the dust.

Part of the problem is that traditional IT service needs are often "apples and oranges" to online-based cloud computing needs. Serving traditional IT allows for specialization based on region and industry. In both cases, the business opportunity is on site implementation of a particular service or application system. Everyone has to do it that way, so every business that goes digital (and eventually they all have) needs these services in full.

The cloud now dilutes that opportunity. If the hardware doesn't run on site, there is no opportunity to sell installation services. If the software is purchased as SaaS, there is no opportunity to sell instances of turnkey systems and the services to install and configure that software. If the operations are handled largely by a faceless organization in a cloud capacity provider, there is no opportunity to sell system administration or runbook services for that capacity. If revenue is largely recurring, there is no significant one-time "payday" for selling someone else's capacity.

So the big money opportunity for service providers in the cloud is strategic, with just a small amount of tactical work to go around.

One possible exception, however, is system management software and hardware. In this case, I believe that customers need to consider owning their own service level automation systems and to monitor the conditions of all software they have running anywhere, either behind or outside of their own firewalls. There is a turnkey opportunity here, and I know many of the cloud infrastructure providers are talking appliance these days for that purpose. Installing and configuring these appliances is going to take specific expertise that should grow in demand over the next decade.

Unless innovative vendors such as RightScale and CohesiveFT kill that opportunity, too.

I know I've seen references by others to this channel problem. (In fact, Eschenbach's interview also raised red flags for Alessandro Perilli of virtualization.info.) On the other hand, others are optimistic it creates opportunity. So maybe I'm just being paranoid. However, if I was a solution provider with my wagon hitched to VMWare's star, I'd be thinking really hard about what my company will look like five years from now. And if I'm a customer, I'd be looking closely at how I will be acquiring compute capacity in the same time frame.

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