How Amazon’s Cloud Infrastructure for VMware Could Find More Uses

AWS re:Invent 2016
Barb Darrow for Fortune

One surprising thing about what Amazon Web Services has done to run VMware’s popular virtualization software in its own cloud data centers is just how…un-cloud-like it seems.

Amazon is assembling masses of “bare metal” computers, which unlike the rest of the AWS servers, come with no virtualization. That’s because VMware’s software is built using its own flavor of virtualization and that, in turn, meant AWS had to offer VMware a phalanx of servers stripped of the Xen virtualization which runs the rest of Amazon’s computers, known collectively as Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2.

As AWS head of product Matt Wood explained it to Fortune in November:

We partnered with VMware to bring their existing software stack over to EC2. Customers told us they wanted the benefits of AWS and all the benefits of VMware, but didn’t want to run our hypervisor so we worked on a new part of EC2 that allows VMware to run natively on EC2.

Think of VMware as offering a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using its customers’ bread. Now the customer wants to use Amazon’s bread, except that the only bread Amazon offers comes with the peanut butter built in. Continuing this analogy, Amazon has agreed to strip the peanut butter from many loaves so VMware can craft sandwiches using its own special PB&J formulation on Amazon’s bread.

In theory, that means all those big business customers—and there are many—that use VMware (VMW) to run their own data centers can more easily forklift their workloads over to AWS data centers using the upcoming product known as VMware Cloud on AWS. That’s an attractive proposition for companies that just want to keep running their virtualized applications as is, instead of re-jiggering them to run on Amazon’s infrastructure.

Virtualization, which lets one set of hardware run more than one set of tasks, is a key linchpin of cloud computing, which is why bare metal is seen as sort of uncloudy.

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When this bare metal work was announced in October, it was painted as a VMware-only option. But there are potentially other big uses for those Xen-free AWS servers. Bare metal, for example, tends to be faster than virtualized hardware for applications like databases that send a lot of data in and out of disk storage.

“There’s also a growing trend to put containers on bare metal to save on virtualization licensing costs and overhead, but that’s usually for private cloud,” says Sebastian Stadil, chief executive of Scalr, a cloud management company. Containers are a modern way developers package up software applications that can run almost anywhere.

Bare metal is also useful for older, but still important applications that can’t be virtualized for various reasons, he notes. Clearly, others have seen opportunity. IBM (IBM) and Rackspace offer bare metal along with other more heavily-virtualized cloud options.

When asked in November if AWS had other potential uses for these bare metal servers, Wood replied there was “nothing to announce at this time.”

Opinion is mixed among AWS watchers if the company will parlay this bare metal capability beyond VMware or simply use it as a way to attract VMware customers to Amazon data centers and then—as some suspect—try to move them completely to Amazon (minus VMware).

“It would be reasonable to assume that, once those workloads reach AWS, there is value in beginning to rearchitect some (maybe even all, one day) of them to run natively on AWS’ own infrastructure, without the overhead of a VMware license,” says Paul Miller, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

Sateesh Narahari, vice president of products for Managed Methods, a cloud security company, also views those VMware bare metal instances “as a transitional state to going full cloud.”

It’s possible that not even AWS execs know yet what will happen. The cloud giant is nothing if not pragmatic. If Amazon (AMZN) sees opportunity once VMware Cloud on AWS materializes in the middle of 2017, it will capitalize on it.

For more on Amazon and VMware, watch:

“If AWS can make the economics and infrastructure management work—and they tend to be good at that—it does seem plausible that we’ll see a generic AWS bare metal offering sooner rather than later,” says Forrester’s Miller.

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