Open source virtualization software still trails, despite improvements

Open source virtualization software has improved, and admins want more choice, but VMware and Hyper-V still dominate the market.

BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Open source virtualization is still a niche technology, despite the rise of multi-hypervisor infrastructures.

Recent open source virtualization software releases have packed in new features with impressive specs, and there’s a clear appetite for VMware Inc. alternatives in enterprise data centers.

One might think these two factors would combine to provide a major boost in open source virtualization’s market share, but that hasn’t happened. Among VMware competitors, only Microsoft’s proprietary Hyper-V has benefited, according to data and several solution providers and analysts who work with multi-hypervisor clients.

“It tends to be Hyper-V,” said Josh Townsend, virtualization practice manager at Clearpath Solutions Group in Herndon, Va. “Every once in a while we run into Citrix for virtual desktops.”

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Other speakers and attendees at this week’s Virtualization Technology Users Group (VTUG) meeting here echoed Townsend’s statement. And when it comes to their customers’ first choices, open source virtualization software hasn't fared any better.  

This year, 59.6% of respondents to TechTarget’s Data Center and Readers’ Choice Survey identified some version of VMware's hypervisor as their primary virtualization platform. Microsoft held a solid second place with 20.3%. Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenServer, which just joined the open source ranks,finished in a distant third, with 3.3%. And  KVM-based hypervisors didn't even crack the 2% mark.

Open source virtualization features improve

Recent developments look to reverse open source virtualization’s fortunes, however. XenServer 6.2, released last month, includes several features that equal or exceed those of VMware’s ESXi 5.1. More importantly, for the first time, all of these features are available for free (although enterprise support licenses carry a price tag).

Earlier this month, the Xen Project, a Linux Foundation consortium that oversees the open source Xen hypervisor, released Xen 4.3. This latest version increases physical memory support on hosts more than threefold, from 5 TB to 16 TB of RAM, and branches out into cutting-edge areas with previews of ARM server support and Open vSwitch integration.

At the VTUG event, IT management vendor ManageEngine said it supports XenServer in the latest versions of its Applications Manager and OpManager products, which already support VMware and Hyper-V. Third-party vendor support is crucial for any hypervisor to gain critical mass.

The company added XenServer support because of customer demand, mainly from medium-sized businesses, according to Arun Balachandran, a ManageEngine senior marketing analyst. The company has also received requests for KVM support from SMBs and some medium-level enterprises, he said.

The trend toward heterogeneous virtualization environments is a result of  hypervisor commoditization. In response, VMware and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft, have tried to move the discussion away from server virtualization, toward higher-level topics such as cloud computing and the software-defined data center, to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack.

"VMware's pretty aware that there are other hypervisors," said Alex Mittell, a VMware consulting architect, during his VTUG keynote. "The software-defined data center can encompass them all."

There are also indications that the pace of hypervisor innovation has slowed. In the past, VMware has released a major new version of vSphere every other year, with a point release in between: vSphere 4 in 2009, 4.1 in 2010, 5 in 2011 and 5.1 in 2012. But a VTUG speaker referred to this year's release as "vSphere 5.next," and other attendees said they've heard it called vSphere 5.5.

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