Product Announcements

What’s in a Name? How vSphere Came To Be Named

(To mark the end of the year we are posting every day through January 1 with lighter vSphere and VMware topics. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. See them all via the “2019 Wrap Up” tag!)

As we look back on 2019 and look forward to 2020 we have been thinking a lot about where we came from. One of the things we thought would be fun as part of this series is finding out how the name “vSphere” came to be. To investigate this I interviewed Mike Adams, Senior Director of Product Marketing, to ask him about the name of vSphere and the general process of naming products and features.

Bob: Before joining VMware I was a customer for 15 years, since about ESX 1.5. I remember along the way we had Virtual Infrastructure 3 and 3.5, but then suddenly we had vSphere 4. What can you tell me about that?

Mike: So yeah, I joined in 2007. Right then the product marketing team was looking to make a big splash, can we make a name that’s better than VI? People used “Virtual Infrastructure” generically to refer to what was in the data center. And vC was spelled out “VirtualCenter” then, too. So what we thought was let’s put out a contest specifically to the engineers to see what they think about names.

Old VMware Three Squares Logo 2002-2009Bob: A vote?

Mike: We didn’t have a list of names already, the product manager actually asked them to submit names. It was really interesting the names that kind of came about. I remember there were names — Diane Green’s name was in one of the names. Mendel’s name was in a couple of the names. There were all sorts of things that came out. A couple of us were just talking about all of this and someone remembered that it was Paul Maritz that submitted “vSphere.” We collected all these names and then we got to the voting part. When we voted, vSphere came out as the big winner.

I remember that we had the launch event at the campus in Palo Alto, in the gym. We brought everybody out. We had racks of equipment on stage and I think – if I remember this right – Pat Gelsinger was on stage as part of Intel. It was a big deal.

Bob: Makes sense. vSphere 4 had a lot of new features in it, things we take for granted today.

Mike: It was when Fault Tolerance first came out, we showed one of the first demos of that. A ton of management improvements. Storage vMotion. The whole day was a big one, too. It was also the day that closed the Oracle acquisition of Sun so there was a lot of other news going on to compete with.

Bob: Wow, a very eventful launch day for the industry.

Mike: Yeah. From that point forward we knew it as vSphere.

Bob: So how many name suggestions were there?

Flogos Snowflake (Tamarabepunkt/Wikimedia Commons)

Mike: We got over 1000 submissions for names. It consumed the marketing manager’s time for a month. We had a lot of good things going on at the time so they were really looking to make a mark with the name. Speaking of marks, at the launch we found this company called Flogos and they had a machine that would make this giant bubble with helium in it that looked like your logo, and it would float away. Remember that three square icon we used to have for VMware? We got this machine and it made that logo a bunch of times and they’d fly up to 5000 feet in the air. We had to tell the airports what was going on.

Bob: I bet SFO and SJC loved you.

Mike: Not really. *laughing* That was all part of you know making this huge impact and vSphere was at the center of all that. We needed a name that we thought would help conceptualize what we were doing. That’s also one of the first times people started melding ESX with vCenter. Nowadays we just say “vSphere” and we know we mean the whole thing, but it was two distinct products up to that point for everyone, not just Engineering.

Bob: Did vCenter get renamed as part of all of this?

Mike: Yeah, we went to the vCenter name instead of VirtualCenter. Everything went to small ‘v’ then.

Bob: So this was also the genesis of the small ‘v’ names for everything? We have you to blame?

Mike: *laughs* I actually had to work to undo some things because of that. Because vCenter manages compute, storage, and networking, everything was vCompute, vStorage, vNetwork. Like the distributed switch, we used to call that the VMware vNetwork Distributed Switch.

Bob: It’s still vDS pretty much everywhere.

Mike: Yeah. The idea that it’s virtual if it comes from VMware… kinda like how the term “tuna fish” is redundant. Tuna implies fish. VMware implies virtual. The names were longer than they needed to be. We got rid of all of that.

Bob: There’s a joke that there are only two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation and naming things*. You invited me to be part of a naming exercise this last summer, and it was incredibly interesting. Can you elaborate on what goes into picking a name?

Mike: Naming things is like a dark arts project. Ideally when you want to do a name you gotta go into some type of brainstorm session, you go in and figure out what is the main idea you need to express. You come up with that first. Then there’s two ways you can go. You could go Dragnet “just the facts” and have a name that says exactly what it does. Or you could go what I call the “cutesy” route and pick something that’s really cool.

Naming something exactly what it is is pretty easy, right? You clean it up and shorten it up and make sure it makes sense. The cutesy route is a lot harder. You need more creative people around that. The other element that’s added into that over time is that a lot of good names are gone. There’s a lot of trademarking. Even when you pick something that you think is brilliant if someone has trademarked it you have to go back to the start.

Bob: Yeah, some dump truck company in South America owns it or something. Frustrating.

Mike: Exactly. So let’s use a couple of examples that are near and dear to our hearts. Whoever came up with vMotion – I don’t know who did it – it’s perfect. It’s so good. I wasn’t around yet when they came up with that but whoever did that… brilliant.

Bob: Cutesy and functional, the holy grail.

Mike: Right. Other things that came out, like DRS. That was an engineering name. Yes, it describes what it does and it’s gotten into our lexicon, but we all just call it DRS and I worry that it’s because nobody quite knows what it really means.

Bob: That’s what keeps tech marketing people like me in business.

Mike: *laughs* Yeah. One other example, I came up with the name for SRM. Site Recovery Manager. We went into a room and asked, “what does it do?” It’s got sites. It helps people recover from disasters. And we were on this kick of “manager” – Lab Manager, Stage Manager, Lifecycle Manager. So we decided to call it Site Recovery Manager. At the time there was a growing movement in the storage world for Storage Resource Management, but we talked about it and kept our SRM.

The other thing with names is that everybody wants to give you their input. Everybody wants to play Monday morning quarterback. You’ve got to get as much consensus as you can, get it approved as fast as you can, and then send it back to the Product Manager to use.

It’s gotten to be a really hard process to pick things, because of what’s not available, and it’s just hard to pick the cutesy names. VMware has traditionally gone with a lot of more functional names because it tends to be easier and more understandable. It’s also very hard to change a name. You get these legacy names and people make a big deal out of the change.

Bob: I get that, you have all the legacy documentation and huge corpus of blog posts and whitepapers and things that need to be updated. That’s tough. I’ve learned a lot about names this last year, things you only learn the hard way when you have to explain something repeatedly. I always think “next time we’re going to do a little better.” Names are really important. They can help us or hurt us, add clarity or cause confusion.

Mike: Yes, yes. I really do believe that. It’s like the Chevy Nova in Latin America.

Bob: Va, conjugated form of the Spanish verb ‘ir’ that means “to go.” No go.

Sendai TansuMike: Exactly. Or Coke in China. Coke sells well in China because the name Coke in Mandarin translates as something like “very pleasant to drink” and people like drinks that are very pleasant to drink. A good name sets you up for really good things.

Bob: Aren’t we doing interesting things with Tanzu in that regard?

Mike: Tanzu is an interesting one as well. The meaning in Swahili is branches. The meaning in Japanese is a container, but a very specific type of container, a chest of drawers built by a skilled craftsman sort of thing. It’s also spelled a little differently, with an S. Tanzu is also interesting because you want the name to cover a number of things, so it works really well.


* The correct form of the joke is that there are two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

(Come back Monday for a look into what people like the most about vSphere. For more posts in this series visit the “2019 Wrap Up” tag.)

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