Is the virtualization hypervisor a commodity?

In server virtualization, the hypervisor makes the magic happen. But now that virtualization is so ubiquitous, is the hypervisor a commodity? Our advisory board members weigh in.

Back when VMware was the only game in town, the virtualization hypervisor was sought-after software that users would pay a premium for.

But as the server virtualization market has matured and other vendors -- namely Microsoft and Citrix Systems -- have released their own hypervisors, many users are instead focusing on advanced virtualization features and management capabilities. These vendors have also affected the market by giving away their virtualization hypervisors.

Members of our Server Virtualization Advisory Board discuss the current role of the virtualization hypervisor as they answer this question:

Is the virtualization hypervisor really a commodity these days?

Jack Kaiser, GreenPages Technology Solutions
The true hypervisor is a commodity these days. (This is why Microsoft and Citrix give away Hyper-V and XenServer.) All of the extra features and managements tools are not a commodity, however. VMware dominates the hypervisor market due to all of the extras they have, such as vCenter, Distributed Resource Scheduler, Fault Tolerance, Site Recovery Manager, etc. Those are why VMware is continuing to win new hypervisor customers. 

I heard two very interesting statistics at VMware Partner Exchange that show that, even if the hypervisor is a commodity, there still is lots of business to be won in the hypervisor space. The two facts are: one, of companies with fewer than 500 employees, more than half have not started to virtualize yet; and two, that half of VMware’s business is from transactions of less than $50,000.

Maish Saidel-Keesing, NDS Group
Not yet, but it will be.

A commodity is “a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Today there are several vendors that sell hypervisors, including VMware, Microsoft, Red Hat, Citrix Systems and Oracle. But it is not possible to run a virtual machine (VM) from one vendor on another vendor’s proprietary hypervisor in an easy and simple fashion. To transfer a VM from Xen to VMware or to Hyper-V, for example, the process is not simple.

Until we come to a stage where the end user can run a VM regardless of what the hypervisor underneath is, the hypervisor cannot be considered a commodity. When that stage comes, the vendors will probably move away from charging for the hypervisor itself. (Some already provide a basic hypervisor free of charge.) Instead, the vendors will go over to charging per running VM (regardless of the hypervisor) for managing those VMs.

Greg Shields, Concentrated Technology
Here we go again. The fact that this question keeps popping up highlights the notion that our industry still doesn’t comprehend the separation between hypervisor and hypervisor management.

Yes, the hypervisor today remains a commodity. In fact, it’s more of a commodity now than ever before, with every player’s hypervisor enjoying a rough parity. The hypervisor itself hasn’t been sexy in years.What continues to drive VMware’s growth are its superior tools that manage the hypervisor.

Look at this situation in a different light: Imagine someone told you they had secretly switched your usual VMware hypervisor with Hyper-V. “Surprise! You’ve been using vSphere Server and Client to manage Hyper-V hosts instead of ESX!” Would you care? If all the management functionality inside vSphere Server and Client still functioned, if every button and checkbox did exactly the same thing, would you really mind what’s under the covers?

Probably not. That’s because the hypervisor itself is a completely swappable component. Vastly more important are all the actions and behaviors you can divine out of that hypervisor vis-à-vis its management tools. Empirically speaking, Hyper-V and XenServer aren’t there yet. VMware is. Thus, VMware’s growth continues.

Eric Siebert, Boston Market
I really dislike the term “commodity” when it comes to IT. Water, oil and gold are all commodities, but when it comes to IT, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut definition on what a commodity is.

A characteristic of a commodity is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Some IT services, such as Web hosting and email, can be considered commodities, but specific technologies like virtualization don’t really fall under that definition. Microsoft is trying to commoditize virtualization by giving Hyper-V away for free, but look at all the people willing to pay for vSphere instead.

To me, the hypervisor is not a commodity at all. For starters, the implementation and features of each hypervisor are very different. The hypervisor is much more than an enabler for virtualization. It has deep integration with many other components in the virtual environment, and each hypervisor is unique. If the hypervisor was a commodity, you would be able to run virtual machines (VMs) across any hypervisor without any effort, which you cannot do now (without converting a VM to a specific format). At some point the hypervisor may evolve into more of a commodity, but with the lack of standards and architectural differences, it’s not today.

This was first published in February 2011

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