“Hypervisor is a commodity”: A deeper analysis

“The hypervisor is a commodity” is a common saying I read on the Internet. You just google it, and you will find many articles on it. It’s interesting to see that articles like this appear regularly in the past several years, as if there is a force behind it. The thinking still persists into the SDDC era, as I found article dated just May 2015. I have read quite a number of them. In general, their thinking are:

  • Majority of the hypervisors are good enough. While VMware has the lead, the common and key capabilities of hypervisor are available on all hypervisors. In these core capabilities, they are more or less the same, so it does not matter which one you use.
  • Distributed applications, the kind of applications that can scale horizontally, are best served inside a container and managed via OpenStack. Hence, it does not matter which underlying hypervisor you should use.

Just like there are those who think hypervisor is a commodity, there are also those who think it is not. I’d quote some of them here as they say it better than I can. Plus, they say it before I do, so it’s only appropriate to quote and refer to them.

My colleague Massimo Re Ferre actually wrote an article on this topic 5 years ago. Please read it before you read this. It gives you a 5 years perspective 🙂

Done reading? Good, let’s dive. The reason why IT Pros disagree is there are multiple dimensions of commodity. I will cover 4 here.

commodity

Financial perspective

From this view point, I agree that it is a commodity. The price has reached the level of commodity hardware. The hypervisor itself is now free. You can get ESXi free. This actually contributes to the misconception that hypervisor is a commodity.

Money is certainly a powerful factor. When something is expensive, it cannot be a commodity. Take family car for example. Whether it’s Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Ford, they are all about the same. But all these typical 1.5l family sedan in Singapore costs US$ 100K for 10 years. Yes, your eye sight is still good. No, petrol and parking not included. Does anyone in Singapore think car is commodity? You gotta be kidding me! 🙂

Technology and Architecture perspective

By technology, I mean the ESXi. By architecture, I mean the entire VMware SDDC stack. I’m grouping Technology and Architecture into 1 here, because they are one for almost all customers.

J. Peter Bruzzese wrote an article at Infoworld on 7 August 2013:

While the hypervisors may be “equal” for the most part, I agree with Davis that the choice you make dictates all the other aspects of your virtualized environment. It certainly has a domino effect.

Rather than saying “See, it’s all the same now” and dismissing the hypervisor as a commodity, it’s better to step back and view the whole picture, including financial and ecosystem, to make the best choice for your environment

The key why hypervisor is far from a commodity is majority of customers do not deploy just ESXi. Far from it. They deploy vCenter. A lot of them add vRealize to help them manage. Some add SRM as they need to do DR. A lot use Horizon View. And just in the past 2 years, many leading customers began adding NSX and VSAN. So what they end up deploying is a proprietary, unique set of products. A lot of  these products do not run on Hyper-V or KVM. Even if they do, they run best on ESXi. A customer told me that VMware is like Apple of the Enterprise. Apple pitches an integrated stack for your personal IT, while VMware pitches an integrated stack for your enterprise IT.

A comparison to this ESXi and SDDC Stack is the OS. You can say that the kernel of Windows and RHEL have more or less similar capability. They all do the base kernel job well. But you don’t just deploy NT kernel or Linux kernel. You deploy the whole OS because both MS and RHEL have created an integrated stack. Once you choose an OS for your application, you do not migrate it to another OS. You live with that decision until the apps are rewritten because it’s hard to get out.

At a personal level, I have not been selling vSphere nor competing with Hyper-V for a good number of years now.

I hope you have read Massimo’s blog above. I’m just quoting a component here:

I’d define a commodity technology as something that had reached a “plateau of innovation” where there is very little to differentiate from comparable competitor technologies. This pattern typically drives prices down and adoption up (in a virtuous cycle) because users focus more on costs rather than on technology differentiation. The PC industry is a good example of this pattern.

Now, you know he said that many blue moons ago. It’s amazing that in 5 long years, the difference between VMware, Microsoft and RedHat are actually getting wider! If they are becoming commodity, they should becoming alike. We did not have NSX and VSAN five years ago! Because they are becoming more different, then you need to choose carefully, because you may end up where you do not want to end up.

Here is another good thought. Eric Siebert said it well here:

To me, the hypervisor is not a commodity at all. For starters, the implementation and features of each hypervisor are very different. The hypervisor is much more than an enabler for virtualization. It has deep integration with many other components in the virtual environment, and each hypervisor is unique. If the hypervisor was a commodity, you would be able to run virtual machines (VMs) across any hypervisor without any effort, which you cannot do now (without converting a VM to a specific format). At some point the hypervisor may evolve into more of a commodity, but with the lack of standards and architectural differences, it’s not today.

What’s interesting is he said that in Feb 2011. Far from evolving into a commodity, VMware has managed to integrate a differentiating stack and led the industry on SDDC. Who would have thought of Software-Defined Storage and Software-Defined Network many blue moons ago?

Operational perspective

Bob Plankers wrote an article on TechTarget on March 2015:

So is the hypervisor a commodity? I don’t think so. A hypervisor isn’t easily interchangeable, and it more closely represents a collection of services rather than a single monolithic product. You pay service and support on it throughout its lifetime, either directly to a vendor or in the form of payroll for support staff. It may be a primary product but it doesn’t count as a raw material.

That’s right. It is not easily interchangeable. Downtime required. Make that massive downtime if you are highly virtualized. How easy is it to get downtime for production VMs nowadays? Expectation on uptime is rising, so getting a downtime will get harder as years go by.

Hans De Leenheer wrote on his blog in 23 April 2014:

A commodity is a service/product where the choice of manufacturer/vendor is irrelevant and interchangeable without any impact on the consumarization. In technology we can plug a server in 220V power off the grid the same way as we can use 220V battery backed power. In virtualization the hypervisor can run on any x86 server, whether it comes from HP, DELL, Lenovo, SuperMicro, Quanta, Cisco, … and the running VM is completely interchangeable without any impact.

If choosing something will result in a lock-in, meaning it is costly and complex to get out, would you choose it carefully? I know I would.

I recently got to know a customer who wants to run VMware in production, and Microsoft in Non Production. The underlying thinking is the hypervisor is commodity. You can migrate between Microsoft and VMware easily. Hans explains:

Moving a VM from one hypervisor to another will still need a migration. There are at least 3 reasons for this;

  • the VM config file is proprietary to the hypervisor
  • the VM disk format is proprietary to the hypervisor
  • the VM guest drivers are proprietary to the hypervisor

How many of you actually need to run multi-hypervisor environments in which VMs need to be interchangeable? I know there are (every day better) migration tools to get you from one platform to another but how much do you want this? And how many times?

Having VMware in production and Microsoft in non production, is like having FC Storage in production and NFS in non production. Sure, you save money. But how would test your production storage upgrade?

In my personal opinion, having multiple hypervisor is penny wise pound foolish. Having multiple hypervisor, is like having multiple emails systems, or multiple Message Bus, or multiple Directory, or multiple CMDB, or multiple intranet, etc. The list goes on, phone system, help desk system, VDI system. There are certain things where you need to standardise. If you are worried about vendor lock-in or the need to control a vendor, there are other levers you can use. Sacrificing your own operations and blood pressure is the dumb way of achieving it 🙂

Skills perspective

In my guesstimate, there are probably >10 millions IT professionals who knows VMware vSphere. By “know”, I do not mean knowing at PowerPoint level. Beyond talking, these IT Professionals can install vSphere. Around 200 thousands are VCP. For every VCP, there are probably 10x more people who are actually at VCP level, but did not take up the certification.

The number drops drastically when it comes to VCAP, VCIX and VCDX. Out of that many people, less than 0.002% have achieved the level of VCDX. Let’s make an ultra conservative assumption that for every VCDX, there are 10 others who are actually at VCDX level. We are still talking 0.02%. A staggering 99.98% do not have that level of expertise, including yours truly. I’ve been a VMware Engineer for 7+ years, was one of the first in the world to pass VCAP-DCD (no 089) and yet I won’t even pass the VCAP-DCA exam, let alone passing the VCDX defence. While my customers and management see me as an SME and expert, the reality is there are more things in vSphere that I don’t know than I know. Another word, my knowledge is not even 50%. And that is just vSphere. I have not included other products that come with vSphere Enterprise Plus or vSphere Operations Manager (VSOM). These products are “free”, as in they are bundled with vSphere. Products such as vRealize Orchestrator, vSphere Replication, vCenter Data Protection should be considered a part of hypervisor.

Beyond vSphere Enterprise Plus, I know that many VMware Professionals have branched out to pick up Storage, Networking, and Management. They are becoming SDDC Architect, and I wrote an article on the rise of SDDC Architect.

As an Architect and Engineer, I think it is unrealistic to have good knowledge on multiple hypervisors. The person will end up as jack of all trades, master of none. If I were a CIO, I certainly expect my Lead Architect to have sufficiently deep knowledge, else he may deliver the wrong architecture (and that can be very costly to undo later on). I also expect my principal engineers to have deep knowledge, as $h!t happens in production (my customer told me: they always happen in production), and I want it solved fast.

Conclusion

Instead of evolving into commodity, Hypervisor is actually evolving into proprietary SDDC. It has broaden beyond server virtualisation and turn the Storage industry, Network industry and Infra Management industry upside down. It’s redefining the very architecture of these industry in software.

Choose your hypervisor carefully, as it determines your entire SDDC stack.

2 thoughts on ““Hypervisor is a commodity”: A deeper analysis

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