VMware: ‘The software-defined data center is coming’

VMware (s vmw) CTO Steve Herrod is taking the stage at Interop on Wednesday morning to deliver a message about the future of enterprise data centers: “[S]pecialized software will replace specialized hardware throughout the data center.” What server virtualization via hypervisors did for computing, new methods of virtualization and software-defined networks are doing at every other layer of IT stack. “Software-defined data centers” are coming, and they’ll redefine infrastructure for the next generation of applications.

Herrod, who shared his vision with me during a call last week, said one problem in IT has been that for decades applications drove the infrastructure. Batch processing begot mainframes, web applications begot the LAMP stack, and they all still exist, turning data centers into a hodgepodge of specialized legacy systems. “Today’s data center is almost a history museum of past IT ideas,” Herrod said.

On the contrary, Herrod explained,  software-defined data centers are “generation-proof.” They collapse disparate systems into a singularity built atop commodity x86 processors and other gear. Software provides everything that’s needed to adapt the data center to new situations and new applications, and to manage everything from storage to switches to security. Although VMware will always work with hardware partners, Herrod said, “If you’re a company building very specialized hardware … you’re probably not going to love this message.”

Essentially, Herrod said, software-defined data centers will bring the dynamic natures of Google (s goog), Facebook and Zynga (s znga) data centers into the mainstream. Yes, it will be a bit more difficult to do this in environments running more than one application, many of them legacy apps, but it’s possible. “Virtualization and the hardware vendors have [already] gotten us to a place where we can deal with the big modern trends [around scalability and performance],” Herrod said.

That’s good news for CIOs and other IT managers who feel pressure to run data centers as efficiently, dynamically and inexpensively as Google and its ilk do, but who know getting to that point using legacy methods will be an exercise in pain tolerance. “To actually stand there and say this platform can handle all your applications is pretty bold,” Herrod said. However, he added, the current state of IT represents “a point in time where the pieces have come together to do this.”

Aside from virtualization, the ubiquity of which has laid the foundation for VMware’s software-defined vision, Herrod attributes much of the momentum to broad acceptance of software-defined networks. They help eliminate “the last bastion of pain” in creating a fluid data center.

Herrod will be expanding on VMware’s plans for the software-defined data centers during an onstage discussion with me at our Structure conference next month, and again at VMworld in August. But if you’ve been following the company for the past couple years, you can probably see where it’s headed. It wants to own the next-generation data center from bottom to top, from infrastructure to applications platforms to applications.

As usual, VMware’s vision is compelling, and it has many of the pieces in place to pull it off. It’s up to the Microsofts (s msft), Citrixes (s ctxs) and Openstacks of the world to develop compelling alternatives or risk seeing VMware — if it can deliver on what it’s promising — expand its hypervisor empire up the stack.