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Are hypervisor tools products or features?

As converged and hyper-converged infrastructures grow in popularity, hypervisors function more like features of overall IT architectures than they do as stand-alone products.

You still have a choice about which company provides your hypervisor software, but there's no longer a question as to whether you need one; you do. In almost all ways, the hypervisor shifted from being a stand-alone product that revolutionized IT to a feature on which other products depend.

In the early 2000s, a brand new product hit the market. Borrowing concepts from all the eras of computing that came before, VMware was the first company the really cracked the x86-based virtualization code to create the market for hypervisor tools. That innovation led to a massive restructuring of the data center and reshaped entire markets as legacy tools began to struggle to maintain currency in a swiftly changing enterprise IT landscape.

On the surface, today's data center is still recognizable to a 1990s-era admin, but the mechanics of modern servers, storage and networking are completely different. This dramatic shift is due primarily to virtualization taking root as a core capability across the resource spectrum.

This shift, from the early 2000s to now, has also changed the perception of the role of hypervisor tools, the layer provided by products such as VMware vSphere, Microsoft's Hyper-V and open source KVM. As transformational as the hypervisor has been, it's hardly a surprise that other companies would also provide such a product. For years, companies released new hypervisor product versions, adding new capabilities and enabling the virtual machines that run atop the hypervisors to scale to new heights with each new release.

In an era when the hypervisor was actively changing, constantly evolving and still coming into its own, the fact that it was a stand-alone product made sense. In fact, an entire virtualization ecosystem sprung up around hypervisor tools, eventually leading to IT innovations such as hyper-converged infrastructure.

The thrill is gone

Eventually, the hypervisor tools market became less exciting. Although vendors that created hypervisors continued to bolster those products with new capabilities, they could only take such a product so far. In fact, the leading hypervisors on the market aren't that different under the hood. They all provide the same kinds of capabilities. The differentiation among the offerings is now driven by the products that surround the hypervisor.

VMware realized that vSphere was quickly becoming a commodity, and products from Microsoft -- and even the open source community -- could ultimately eclipse the hypervisor giant with good enough cheaper products. So VMware continued its efforts to expand into other areas of the data center. Today, we see the fruits of that labor: vSAN, NSX and the various cloud management and orchestration tools the company produces.

Meanwhile, companies such as Nutanix, Scale Computing, Cloudistics and Stratoscale build their products around the open source KVM hypervisor tools, and modify them to meet their platforms' needs.

Product vs. feature

As the hypervisor matured and penetrated more deeply into organizations, it became an expected feature in infrastructure products, particularly HCI systems. Hypervisors are often sold as a product, but they are absolutely a feature on which other products rely. The hypervisor is a tightly integrated component that is a part of vendors' larger platform visions.

Although the overall NSX vision is to add support for other hypervisors in addition to vSphere, products such as vSAN and NSX are geared toward VMware shops. These products may be considered add-ons for vSphere, but they are also stand-alone offerings. If you run Hyper-V today and want vSAN, you must shift to vSphere for that to happen. In many ways, VMware's complementary offerings have commoditized and feature-ized vSphere.

This is not a negative. The more new products that companies such as VMware, Nutanix, Scale Computing and others can tie to their distinct hypervisor software choice, the more revenue they can generate and the more closely they can link customers to an ongoing relationship with their own hypervisors.

This was last published in December 2017

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