VMware And IBM Go Full Circle To Dominate The Cloud-Native Ecosystem

While Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” taught us that leaders will struggle to retain their leadership position in dynamic industries, others such as Ron Adner have reminded us that it is rarely the innovator that ends up capturing most of the long term value. Examples in technology abound, from Xerox Labs and the Graphic User Interface to Sony and the MP3 player (both examples redefined by Apple later on).

Sometimes, a handful of new players emerge that truly break through into dominance—Amazon Web Services is an obvious example in the IT infrastructure space—but the large majority end up failing (think of how many more public cloud players existed only a few years ago). As analyst firm Monkchips has shown with their “VMware pattern” theory, that is mostly because it is very difficult to mature as a company, in order to take your innovative technology from inception to wider enterprise adoption.

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger and Heptio co-founder and CTO Joe Beda, on the day of the announcement of the former company acquiring the latter.
VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger and Heptio co-founder and CTO Joe Beda, on the day of the announcement of the former company acquiring the latter.JOE BEDA ON TWITTER

The polarization of the Kubernetes world

The cloud-native ecosystem emerged with the open-sourcing of Kubernetes in 2014, and since then we have seen an explosion of new companies and new open source projects. At times daunting for its busy graphic representation, the fragmented CNCF landscape for the most part showed us a promise of a community of small, innovative equals. The past two years have been remarkable for the consolidation of power in this ecosystem, arguably the current and future battleground of IT, as I wrote in a previous post.

While consolidation happens often, and the “VMware pattern” holds, it is not often that we see companies who were dismissed as “has-beens” by analysts come back to true dominance in a completely new field. After all, HP’s and Dell’s server businesses have been hit hard by Cloud and have not bounced back; Oracle has been trying to adapt to the brave new world of open source and portable software; and Microsoft has given up its plans for mobile long ago (though its resurgence as a cloud and open source mammoth has been breathtaking to watch).

In the blue corner, if you will, with IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat and its strategic contributions to the cloud-native ecosystem, it is newly positioned at this point in time as a strong leader with a wealth of both hugely popular open source projects, and strong tools to build, run and manage cloud-native applications (from RHEL through to OpenShift). I wrote about this in an earlier post, interviewing Dr. Jim Comfort.

And in the other corner, its erstwhile rival in the jolly days of virtualization, VMware. With the rise of public cloud and OpenStack, and then Kubernetes, the company experienced clickbait headlines about its business model business model, employee retention and other concerns—all the while continuing to post satisfactory financial results. With recent news, long-time execs in VMware are definitely laughing now.

The Multi-Cloud, Cloud-Native Company

The brave decision to shut down its own public cloud service—something IBM, with its large Softlayer estate, did not do as decisively—led VMware to embrace its position as a multi-cloud leader, with strategic deals brokered with AWS and other clouds.

Then came the wave of acquisitions: Heptio, a cloud-native services firm founded by the originators of the Kubernetes project; Bitnami, a cloud apps company with deep developer relationships; and lately, Pivotal, OpenShift’s big rival in the world of enterprise PaaS.

At VMworld this week, we’ve witnessed the pièce de résistance with Project Pacific and Tanzu Mission Control, effectively summarized by former Heptio co-founder and CEO Craig McLuckie:

Both IBM and VMware are clearly just getting started. The dominance of developers and popularity of open source as a methodology in the cloud-native world will likely ensure some sort of balance of power in the ecosystem, but with the dramatic and rapid resurgence of these two ex-“has-beens,” Kubernetes and related projects are truly maturing into enterprise technologies. For now, their innovator’s dilemma has found its solution.

(Originally posted on Forbes.com)