Monday, December 10, 2007

Hypervisor Certification Crossroads

My last blog post, Certification “aka Some Assembly Required,” stirred up an interesting brew of fan mail. It seems that I wrote what lots of people have been thinking when I proclaimed that certification is a weak promise at best -- a hoax at worst -- with most customers spending 6X their license costs on installation, maintenance, and administration of “certified” software. The pity of this whole situation is that software vendors are also paying a high price for the myriad of customer preferences regarding middleware and operating systems. And the price is about to get a lot steeper.

Applications vendors will soon find themselves at a crossroads. They must either embrace virtual appliances (with certification to the hypervisors as the critical element), embrace SaaS ala as their only distribution approach (where customers get no choices regarding infrastructure or even features for that matter), or brace for an enormous expense uptick in certification costs when they must begin including all of the hypervisor products as additional customer preference items required for testing.

The certification gauntlet that application vendors have historically run in order to deliver their application to the widest possible market is often referred to as “the matrix of pain.” For every element in the stack that might be a customer preference – OS, application server, web server, database – and for every release of these elements, the application vendor creates a row and a column. Each intersecting cell above the diagonal represents a configuration to be tested as part of the R&D expense associated with release engineering. Of course the testing never occurs in the exact configuration of elements for a given customer situation, but some testing is better than none.

And, theoretically, each maintenance update of each element requires re-testing. Of course, no application vendor actually does this testing because they simply cannot afford to do it. As it is, certification gobbles up 40 – 50% of R&D expenditures (not to mention the customer service burden associated with customer variability). Don't believe me? Why do you suppose spends 8 – 9% of revenue on R&D for a pretty rich CRM application when most software companies spend 15 – 18%? only certifies to ONE infrastructure – their own datacenter infrastructure. And they bring every customer along with every release of software so they do not have the testing expense associated with maintaining legacy code on new platforms or vice versa.

Now, with hypervisors providing customers with so much value and flexibility as the layer that abstracts the hardware from the application, vendors are going to be pushed by their customers to certify their applications against all of the popular hypervisors. And, with such a hot category, there will be lots of technology development and lots of releases. That means lots of NEW columns and rows for the “matrix of pain.” If you thought 40 – 50% of your R&D budget was painful because it sucked the wind out of new feature development, wait until that number climbs to 60 – 70% when you throw in another layer for the hypervisor. Add some more to those costs when customers start demanding that you also support Amazon's EC2 and other similar services like IBM's Blue Cloud.

Had enough? Ready to cry “UNCLE?” Better get busy figuring out how to deliver your application as a virtual appliance. For those virtual appliances, you will STILL need to release and test against the hypervisor products -- VMware, Citrix' XenSource, Microsoft's pending Hyper-V -- along with all of the “cloud” computing services that are going to emerge to compete with Amazon's EC2. Better choose your virtual appliance infrastructure provider wisely to accommodate these customer choices in the market (shameless plug for rPath).

No doubt customers will initially object to some limitation of choice regarding the elements that support the application when you wrap it all up and deliver it with a bow on top as a virtual appliance, but these are the same customers that are going to drive you to embrace hypervisors in your testing matrix. Give them a tradeoff – virtual appliances that are cheap and easy to install, maintain, and administer, or the old fashioned way with a $250,000 per year support uplift to cover your expense for navigating their “matrix of pain.” Standing at this expense crossroads, I bet they make the same decision you should make as you stand at the hypervisor certification crossroads today -- “Let's give that virtual appliance a try.”

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