LinuxWorld: Virtualization Bake-In Off and Running

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2006-04-02

LinuxWorld: Virtualization Bake-In Off and Running

Amid a growing cacophony of demand, the two largest Linux vendors, Red Hat and Novell, plan to bake virtualization into their enterprise products slated to ship later this year. But technology managers are mixed on the approach.

The bake-in revolves around the Xen hypervisor, an open-source virtualization application that allows multiple operating systems to run concurrently on the same server.

If the efforts are successful, virtualization could run in the background of operating systems, notably Linux. The rub: Xen is changing rapidly and may be too raw for enterprise use.

Nevertheless, the move toward open-source virtualization tools is having an impact on some industry leaders and could help make virtualization ubiquitous just as enterprises are clamoring for more ways to save money on infrastructure.

For instance, VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif., in what some say is a nod to Xen, will use the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in Boston the week of April 3 to announce that it is sharing, license-free, its core virtual machine format and specification—technology customers use to manage, patch, update and back up virtual environments.

Also, companies such as XenSource, Dell, Microsoft and Advanced Micro Devices will be showing off their virtualization wares at LinuxWorld.

Click here to read about AMDs planned virtualization demonstration at LinuxWorld.

Dan Chu, VMwares senior director of developer and ISV products, said the move to share its format and specification is another step in the companys push to create a larger ecosystem around virtualization.

Included in the companys VM spec are virtual disks, which are the containers for the disks used by the operating system running in a VM. A standard format for virtual disks would help preserve users configurations as they move among VMs from different vendors and would enable software makers to create products that run with any virtualization offering, Chu said.

Meanwhile, the clamor for virtualization among technology managers is palpable. "I cannot have a conversation with someone today without the topic of virtualization coming up," Chris Burry, technology infrastructure practice director at Avanade, in Dallas, told eWEEK. "One of its greatest attractions is that it gives senior corporate decision makers another tool for optimizing their environments and driving the greatest value out of their IT investments."

Joseph Foran, director of IT at FSW, in Bridgeport, Conn., agreed, saying virtualization is "infectiously contagious" because it can be added to infrastructure without ripping out existing hardware.

Robert McInerney, North American IS infrastructure manager for TRW Automotive, in Livonia, Mich., and a Novell customer, said it is promising that the industry is embracing virtualization on many fronts. "This will make a larger number of applications and operating systems compatible in that environment," McInerney said, adding that TRW is continuing a virtualization effort that began last year.

Pervasive virtualization

However, the devil is in the details. At issue is whether virtualization technology should be lumped into an operating system. "The Linux-with-Xen and Windows-with-Virtual-Server approaches do not appeal greatly to our organization," Foran said.

FSW uses products from VMware for its core server infrastructure and to run many of its legacy applications on user desktops. Using VMware offerings allowed FSW to cut hardware costs by 75 percent, Foran said.

For potential customers such as Foran, Red Hat, of Raleigh, N.C., and Novell, of Waltham, Mass., may have some explaining to do. The two vendors will use LinuxWorld to explain why the Xen hypervisor technology is essential to making virtualization pervasive on Linux.

"Our goal is to make virtualization as pervasive as possible, and we will do whatever we have to so that can happen," said Brian Stevens, Red Hats chief technology officer.

Stevens, who claimed 80 percent of Red Hats customers are "jazzed" about Xen, said the company plans to build virtualization into its server products.

"The benefits of virtualization are clear: There will be large cost savings, as server utilization can be driven from 20 percent to 80 percent, with the resultant savings in space and power bills, as well as the reliability it brings and the ability to migrate and isolate workloads in the event of system failure," Stevens said.

Despite that rosy outlook, there are lingering questions about Xen technologies, which are essentially still under development and not yet ready for prime time, say critics. Indeed, Red Hat officials recently acknowledged that Xen is not ready to be submitted for inclusion in the mainstream Linux kernel.

Next Page: Is Xen ready for prime time?

Is Xen Ready for

Prime Time?">

While Xen currently runs Linux and NetBSD, there is ongoing work to enable it to also run Sun Microsystems Solaris. Upcoming hardware features in Intel and AMD processors will allow Xen to run other operating systems such as Windows.

FSWs Foran is one customer unlikely to use baked-in virtualization, largely because he said he feels significant hurdles still need to be overcome in remediating the limitations that force lock-in to an operating system or a hardware platform.

"Xen lacks that sort of enterprise focus, even in the 3.0 community release, while Microsoft requires vendor lock-in with the Microsoft Operations Manager," Foran said. "VMware has built-in management tools and allows us to remain vendor-neutral and avoid any kind of lock-in."

Diane Greene, VMware president and executive vice president at parent company EMC, told eWEEK that while there is a technical argument that a vendor could drive hardware slightly more efficiently through tight integration of the operating system and virtualization, this potential limited improvement comes at a high cost.

"The integration effectively bundles together the operating system and the virtualization, and the decoupling is lost," Greene said. "More importantly, bundling virtualization in the operating system puts the ability to exploit freedom of choice around the software stack in jeopardy. Operating system vendors have a financial incentive to move customers to their latest operating system, not to provide software choice to the customer."

Greene argued that the ideal scenario for customers would be virtualization bundled into hardware and supported through an industry-standard interface for all VMs. The VMs could then run any operating system built for the underlying hardware.

What does rumor say to expect from LinuxWorld? Click here to read more.

Tim Marsland, CTO for operating platforms at Sun, in Santa Clara, Calif., said another concern about Xen is that various vendors will tweak the hypervisor to couple it with their operating systems and create interoperability woes later. "This will be hard to resist unless there is some industrywide effort to keep some level of interoperability [for Xen]," said Marsland.

While Sun intends to follow much the same model as Red Hat and Novells SUSE division, it is unwilling to give a time frame for the inclusion of Xen virtualization in Solaris. "The Xen development is not yet finished, and there is sufficient uncertainty about the technology at this point. I dont believe that the Xen code is really ready for the enterprise as yet," Marsland said.

The rush to Xen

So why the rush to Xen? Perhaps Novells SUSE and Red Hat are racing to include Xen to differentiate themselves from each other and to compete with VMware, said Marsland.

Novell CEO Jack Messman acknowledged as much. "We watched what happened with proprietary virtualization technologies like those from VMware and realized that this was something we needed to do ourselves to remain competitive and meet customer needs," Messman said.

As a result, Novell this summer will release SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 with the Xen hypervisor completely integrated into the operating system. Competitor Red Hat announced in March that it will also tightly integrate the hypervisor capabilities into its operating system.

However, as vendors such as Red Hat, Novell and others move to embrace the open-source Xen technology and forge relationships with XenSource, founded by the original Xen development team, questions are being raised about the future of proprietary software such as VMwares going forward.

Red Hat, Novell and Sun all have existing relationships with VMware, but those relationships could change over time. In fact, Novell CTO Jeff Jaffe said the company wants to move away from proprietary products and toward those that are developed and supported by the open-source community. "However, in the short term, we need to do business with vendors like VMware to provide our customers with technologies that are currently available, reliable and stable," Jaffe said.

Suns Marsland said he believes VMware will have to deal with "some pretty harsh competition from the world that is commoditizing around it" as well as from what comes out of Microsoft. "This is going to be an interesting time for them," Marsland said.

But, that said, Sun plans to continue its relationship with VMware, as "there is a difference between a technology that is evolving and one that is dominant in the market. We will continue to offer the VMware product as long as our customers want to use it," Marsland said.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Burt

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