Xen trademark stirs up virtualization community

Virtual Iron and possibly Red Hat have stopped using the word 'Xen' to describe their virtualization offerings, but it's VMware that trademark holder XenSource really wants to protect against.

Unlike Shakespeare's rose, Xen, by any other name, is most definitely not Xen, and 'Xen' trademark holder XenSource Inc. has told other virtualization players that unless they agree to its trademark terms, to stop calling their products as such.

XenSource, the commercial entity founded by of the University of Cambridge researchers that developed the open source hypervisor, made the Xen community aware of their trademark policy this fall, and, so far, at least one vendor -- Virtual Iron Software Inc. -- has agreed to stop using the name.

"I've been asked by XenSource's lawyers not to say the word that begins with 'X' since they own that word outright," said Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron Software in Lowell, Mass.

According to Grandinetti, XenSource's lawyers "dropped a bomb" on the Xen community last month when they announced that "you'll have to pay to certify your apps against our test suite, and you'll have to pay us some more to use the name," Grandinetti said.

Simon Crosby, CTO at XenSource, disputes the notion that XenSource asked Virtual Iron to pay for the right to the Xen brand. "It's not a money-making thing whatsoever," Crosby said. "It's about protecting the community."

The "community" in this case refers to the list of Linux distribution vendors and XenSource partners that have rendered "Faithful Implementations" of the Xen hypervisor, as maintained by XenSource at xenbits.xensource.com. Those vendors, according to XenSource include, but are not limited to, Novell, Sun and Red Hat.

Red Hat Xen-free
But Red Hat Inc., too, seems to be backing off any Xen nomenclature. While Red Hat's Web site hasn't been entirely stripped of the word Xen, the word is nowhere to be found under Red Hat's virtualization page.

A Red Hat spokeswoman denied any knowledge of whether Red Hat and XenSource had engaged in any trademark discussions, and said that if anyone asked, "we'd tell them that we are based on the Xen hypervisor." However, "what we're really focused on is RHEL," she said. "Xen is just one of the 1,200 different packages that are going to be shipped with RHEL 5."

Red Hat is expected to release Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5 mid-March. The company has repeatedly stated that a core RHEL 5 feature will be Xen-based virtualization, and it figures prominently in Fedora Core 5, its sandbox distribution.

An archived discussion between Xen developers suggests that Red Hat's Xen developers have not always been so sanguine about the naming restrictions:

"I'm not debating the merit, or lack thereof, around the recent XenSource restrictions around the use of the term Xen," wrote Brian Stein, Red Hat engineering manager of emerging technologies. That said, "there remains some ambiguity as to Red Hat's ability (and evidently others) to ship our version of these bits *and* call them Xen," Stein wrote.

In an earlier post, Stein had suggested a replacement for the hypervisor formerly known as Xen: "Given internal (and external) concerns with our upcoming inclusion of a hypervisor-based on a popular open source project, we're considering using a neutral reference: 'CNH' - Common Neutral Hypervisor."

To hear Grandinetti speak of it, of all the members of the Xen community, Red Hat is actually the one with "the most animosity toward XenSource." As one of the charter members of the group, Red Hat has contributed thousands of man-hours to the project, and "they feel betrayed," he said.

"Unlike Linux, with Linus Torvalds, we have a situation where the maintainers of the project are also a vendor-funded start-up trying to make a profit," Grandinetti said. "It's not the happiest family I've ever been a part of," he added. In Grandinetti's mind, an alternative would be to create an OSDL-type organization responsible for overseeing Xen, unfettered by conflicting financial interests.

VMware, the real enemy?
But if there's one vendor that XenSource is protecting the Xen community against, it's VMware.

"A few months ago, VMware published a performance study of ESX vs. Xen, and they completely trashed it," said Simon Crosby. "Our question is, what Xen are you talking about? Some random bucket of bits?"

Crosby said that XenSource has performed benchmarks of its own against VMware ESX, and that even though VMware's EULA prohibits publishing performance results, "we're going to do it anyway," and publish results of Xen 3.0.3 against VMware ESX.

As far as Virtual Iron is concerned, "they've gone down the proprietary road, and that's fine," Crosby said. "They still get to use the Xen bits." But XenSource's goal, he said, "is to build an ecosystem around Xen, such that all the management tools can plug in equally well to Red Hat, Sun, SUSE…The community is comprised of this virtuous circle, and the people who play get to reap the benefits."

Let us know what you think of the story, email Alex Barrett, News Director.

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