VMware co-founder tackles virtualization at Cisco

The five visionary tech executives who created VMware Corp. and launched the x86 virtualization market have kept low public profiles in recent years, with four leaving VMware as the company gets remade by owner EMC.

But Ed Bugnion, the first of the founders to leave VMware, is still in the virtualization field at Cisco Systems Inc., where he is helping ensure that data center hardware can harness the potential of the virtualization software he developed at VMware.

Bugnion, VMware’s CTO, left the company in 2004, the same year it was acquired by EMC. He went on to co-found and serve as CTO of Nuova Systems, which was acquired by Cisco in April 2008. Cisco turned Nuova into its Server Access and Virtualization technology group, and Bugnion is now CTO of that business unit.

“It was the right time for me to leave, and I started Nuova Systems after having left VMware,” Bugnion explained during an interview last week at the Red Hat Summit in Boston, where Cisco discussed some joint technology with Red Hat. “The announcement we made in 2005 is that the deployment of virtualization at scale will change the way IT thinks about the underlying infrastructure of the data center, including the networking infrastructure. That was the genesis of Nuova Systems.”

Bugnion founded VMware in 1998 with Edward Wang, Scott Devine, and the two more famous members of the founding group, the husband-and-wife team including chief scientist Mendel Rosenblum and CEO Diane Greene.

“I was one of the five founders of VMware out of Stanford University,” Bugnion notes. “I had multiple jobs over the years. The last one was as CTO reporting to the CEO. Before that … I was one of the main developers of the hypervisor at the beginning.”

Greene was forced out of VMware by ownership in 2008, and Rosenblum left the company later that year. Wang left in 2009, but Devine is still with VMware as principal engineer.

Rosenblum remains at Stanford University where he is a computer science professor, while Greene holds board positions and investment stakes in several start-ups, including the recently launched private cloud vendor Nimbula.

“We all know each other. High tech is a very small industry,” Bugnion says.

Cisco is, of course, working closely with VMware, as well as Red Hat and other virtualization vendors to create virtual machines capable of hosting mission-critical applications.

“Pretty much every hypervisor under the Sun is supported on the UCS (Cisco’s Unified Computing System),” Bugnion says.

But Cisco has gone even further with VMware and Red Hat, announcing last week that Cisco’s Virtual Network Link (VN-Link) technology is now integrated with Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. (This integration already existed with VMware).

During a press conference that featured both Bugnion and Red Hat officials, the Red Hat executives criticized the VMware hypervisor, saying it is based on 15-year-old technology that is not well adapted to the cloud computing age.

Bugnion did not take sides in that battle, saying, “It’s certainly a point that Red Hat would make and it’s a point that VMware would not agree to.”

More broadly, Bugnion says he believes cloud computing is generating a “second level of disruption” in IT architecture, above and beyond a first level of disruption caused by virtualization software. Red Hat and VMware are separately trying to create the software needed to power the cloud boom, but Bugnion says: “Neither company today has the final stack for the infrastructure software that is optimized for that second level of disruption.”

At Nuova, and now Cisco, Bugnion’s goal has been to provide support within the network for virtualization, in part by providing universal access between servers and storage to take advantage of virtualization’s flexibility. Technologies such as Fibre Channel over Ethernet are crucial to achieving these objectives, he says.

When Cisco acquired Nuova in 2008, it also introduced a new data center switching line called Nexus 5000, which had been developed in collaboration with Nuova.

Cisco also now delivers the Nexus 1000V Series, which are software-based virtual machine access switches that operate inside the VMware hypervisor.  

Despite the special integrations with VMware, Cisco is pledging to keep the UCS based on open standards, allowing customers to move workloads from the UCS onto different hardware platforms, or into public cloud services.

Customers have migrated workloads from other platforms onto the UCS, with the understanding that those workloads can also be moved back to competing platforms, Bugnion says.

“The UCS is a very open platform,” he says. “It’s built using the components of the open server industry, the x86 CPUs and corresponding componentry. It is capable of running any operating system and hypervisor.”

Standards like the Open Virtualization Format allow for portability of virtual machines, but there is still work to do in ensuring that workloads can move freely from one cloud to another, Bugnion says.

“The notion that the cloud eventually becomes a market is something we believe in at Cisco,” he says. The cloud should have a “level of interoperability based on commonly understood standards.”

But, he adds, “There are additional aspects that need to be further standardized by the industry to really enable that interoperable marketplace.”

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