A Conversation with Chris Wolf, CTO, Americas at VMware

In our conversation with Chris Wolf, CTO, Americas, at VMware, he provides his take on software-defined data centers. The former research vice president for Gartner’s Technical Professionals service, Wolf explains the flexibility of SDDC and the havoc Frankenclouds can create. Wolf spends most of his time on the road talking with enterprises of all sizes and in every industry. He wrote the first book on virtualization of IT.

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Radius: Why is the hybrid cloud and software-defined data center (SDDC) such an important topic for enterprises?

Chris Wolf: If you look at the macro trend, as many CIOs are doing, what companies are really after is to get out of the infrastructure business. They don’t see it as differentiating. When we think about IT today, there’s a set of basic commodity services; they are: compute network, data storage, security provisioning and maintenance. Everyone expects to be fast and automated in those areas, period.

With SDDC, we can automate all of that for you through software, and at the same time, not take people’s jobs away. SDDC can actually free them to focus on things that they should have been spending more time on all along.

Radius: What are some of those things SDDC frees people to do?

CW: I often ask security administrators how they are spending their day. And for the majority of them, the answer is always the same. More than 80 percent of their time is spent sitting at their desks, opening up service tickets, writing some kind of rule set or analyzing a log and then closing the service tickets. They’re almost like factory workers.

When you see the IT security person on TV, that’s not what you see, right? It looks like a pretty exciting career.

SDDC automates the mundane parts of the job so the IT team can spread their time researching threats or building automated counter-measures – all the other fun things that you see on TV.

Radius: IT often complains about all the legacy apps and legacy architectures it has to deal with and that it has little time for new projects. Has that changed significantly?

CW: There is acceptance in every IT organization that there is a legacy world. You just have to start to draw the line and say, okay, we’re going to have a core architecture team that’s going to build this new infrastructure for this new era. And for some of this legacy IT, we’re going to integrate with it, but we’re not going to necessarily carry it forward.

The idea that you can automate your data center via democracy is just a fallacy. It’s not true. I saw this a lot when I was at Gartner, and I still see it. It really resonates with customers.

Radius: What do you mean by “automate your data center through democracy?”

CW: Democracy means letting every technology owner pick their favorite technology and then try to automate these aggregated pieces and parts.  If you spend enough millions of dollars in professional services, eventually you’ll get it done, but what you’ve built is a “Frankencloud,” which you’re never going to be able to upgrade.

Radius: Aren’t Frankenclouds going to be the reality for a while?

CW: Think about many IT services companies. Their entire business model is centered on getting enterprises (their customers), to think they’re very unique and special, and to give each one a custom solution, and which for the most part are commodity IT services.

Even when VMware talks about highly automated data centers, and freeing people to do other things, there’s a lot of resistance both on the vendor side and the services side, to this message.

Radius: How will you overcome this resistance?

CW: Education is the key. It wasn’t that long ago when technicians were replacing transistors on circuit boards and their specialization was related to finding failures in very small components. The electronics industry evolved and instead of repairing boards, it simply replaced them. It was just a bigger module but it allowed for faster repairs and better availability.

It is similar to the move to the software-defined data center. We have these IT operations folks who are tinkerers at heart, they love to build things. You’re asking them to still build but to start building using bigger building blocks.

There’s going to be some fear and trepidation but part of this is to show enterprises that they’re going to be far better off re-tooling their IT skill sets and thinking bigger because what they’re doing is just simply going to be replaced by software. It’s inevitability at this point.

Radius: Do IT organizations have the bandwidth to make the architectural change when they’re struggling with their daily deluge of support tickets?

CW: That’s a great question. It’s going to be an evolution. As I start to move more workloads onto a cloud-like infrastructure, then over time, the percentage of work on legacy IT will decrease. But only if the organization is committed to a private cloud or hybrid cloud goal.

Radius: What are some of the misunderstandings about the cloud?

CW: There is this idea that I can write application code and then I can just run it on any cloud. The reality is the application still winds up getting bound to specific cloud APIs for things such as security, performance management and disaster recovery. I have to do these things regardless of where an application runs.

And if two clouds are dissimilar, it is going to be a lot of work to pick up an application and move it somewhere else, that’s just the fact. A core part of the value proposition of the software-defined data center is that I can have that consistent set of APIs no matter where that application runs. That provides for the same security, backup, disaster recovery, performance management, and so on wherever an application runs. The result is that IT doesn’t have to re-certify a new operational stack around a re-deployed application; that can result in days to weeks of time saved.

Radius: What is the future for the IT specialist?

CW: You’re going to need less; I think that’s the key. A customer just this week told me they expect that they’ll have more generalists on their IT staff.  But they’re still going to have some hardware in their data centers, so they’re still going to need some specialists dealing with aspects of hardware troubleshooting and connectivity.

Radius: How critical is this for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs)?

CW: It’s really critical for SMBs to embrace this technology because no matter how small your business is, you still need to have the look and feel of a global business – meaning that the lights always have to appear on. A small business might have only one or two full-time IT people; they’re understaffed. These technologies are important because they allow small businesses to better compete with fewer IT resources.

Radius: How do enterprises choose the right path to hybrid cloud and SDDC?

CW: Part of VMware’s role is as a trusted advisor and making sure enterprises understand how they can methodically get to the end state. Everybody loves the idea of being fully automated and doing IT as a service, but they have to start small.

They might just automate their development and test lab initially, and then they’ll evolve from there. Even when you get the technology down, you have processes that change, and people have to learn new skill sets. You have to build that base of institutional knowledge before you go broader with these concepts.

Radius: Is there something that could speed up that process?

CW: There’s a lot that VMware is doing that can help speed up that process. One of the best examples is our EVO line which provides an iOS-like experience for delivering data center services. They just work, they get updated as a service. I don’t even have to think about them, I just know they work.

An iPhone is never about iOS, it’s really about the apps. And we feel the same way. Our partners will provide the custom “apps” for our platform that our customers will use to further differentiate themselves. At the end of the day, the IT team is spending far less time on upgrades and maintenance, and now they can focus on more important things.

Radius: What can VMware offer startups?

CW: Obviously, startups are important because they’re often the ones that are trying to disrupt traditional technology, and you see a lot of innovation coming from these startup organizations.

Startups can grow very quickly and see demand in geographies that they may not have initially anticipated. By starting on vCloud Air, they can easily redeploy their applications anywhere in the world. That could mean another vCloud Air data center, a partner cloud, their own private cloud, a Co-lo, or even a branch office. We all don’t know what we don’t know, and the flexibility provided by our SDDC platform future-proofs startups against the unexpected.

Radius: IT organizations often seem to forget about factoring the costs of exiting a platform. Is that something you’ve seen?

CW: At Gartner, a common conversation with clients was they didn’t realize how much it was going to cost to run their application on Amazon Web Services. They asked “How do I move it?” and when we dug into the details, 99 times out of 100, the answer was don’t. It’s going to cost you far more to do the migration. We understand that customers will use AWS and that is why our management products support workloads on AWS; however, customers should leverage proprietary clouds like AWS for services that they are comfortable keeping there for their entire lifecycle. In addition, they should evaluate platform as a service (PaaS) offerings such as Pivotal Cloud Foundry to remove the stickiness between a cloud service and a particular provider.

Moving the operational stack, the management and security that sits around the application is always the hard part. With a VMware-based infrastructure that piece of the puzzle is exactly the same no matter where that application runs. It all stays the same.

One vCloud Air customer said they managed to reduce what was a two-week process to less than one day. It’s the same VMware infrastructure and APIs, so they didn’t have to do anything. It was just bringing everything online and making sure it works. And that was the day’s effort.

What we want to do is elevate the conversation. It’s more than server virtualization. To bring a service online you need networking and security and storage.

Radius: What’s VMware’s approach to security?

CW: Networking and Security is one of the fastest growing business units in the history of VMware, probably next to the hypervisor itself.

J.P. Morgan Chase has one of the most sophisticated IT organizations in the world today. And when you see an organization like that getting hacked, it shows that the available tools to solve some of these security challenges are just simply inadequate.

VMware’s NSX platform is able to wrap security around every application in your data center. That is something that couldn’t be done in the past. Enterprises would have their traditional firewall, and if the malware got through that firewall, then it’s game on. When you can virtualize the firewall, and you can have a dedicated perimeter around every application in your data center — it completely changes the game.

We’re seeing hundreds of customers deploying this technology in their data centers because they just see this as a no-brainer. We provide the framework and then you still get to pick any of your preferred security vendors of choice to ride on top of that framework.

Radius: Is virtualization as a term less important today?

CW: I think it’s something we want to take ownership of because it is technology that everyone relies on, right? When you look at even Gartner’s CIO priorities, it’s still in the top 10.

What we want to do is elevate the conversation. It’s more than server virtualization. To bring a service online you need networking and security and storage. That’s a point of strength for VMware where we are still years ahead of our competitors.

Radius: How do enterprises change the way they work?

CW: The lesson I try to impart to customers is, look, we don’t have to invent everything ourselves anymore. When you have bigger building blocks that solve your problems, go and use them. That’s going to allow your business to move faster, and that’s what this is all about in the end.

To read more on this topic, you can visit Chris Wolf’s blog