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Mixing and matching virtualization platforms

Using multiple virtualization platforms allows you to avoid vendor lock-in, but it can be difficult to bridge and manage technologies from different virtualization vendors.

Most virtualization platforms are proprietary, and few common and open standards exist to bridge technology in...

today’s virtualized environments. As long as this situation persists, using multiple platforms for virtualization will be a challenge.

The reasons are simple: High-tech companies make huge investments in their research and development budgets and take great pains to protect their intellectual property rights, including virtualization platforms. At the same time, the innovation of virtualization vendors often outstrips attempts to define common and open standards for virtualization platforms.

Although some virtualization vendors do open their application programming interfaces (APIs) to other companies, they typically do this to stimulate growth in the third-party eco-system. A compromise strategy may be a hybrid approach to virtualization vendors, which could pay dividends by reducing risk and driving down licensing costs.

Growth of virtualization platforms
The goal of most virtualization vendors is to take the whole x86 estate and port those physical servers into virtual machines (VMs). At a single stroke, the vendor then becomes the underpinning virtualization platform that allows those VMs to provide business-critical services to the end users.

Such has been the growth of virtualization platforms and VMware. As a result, many see Cisco’s entry into the server market with its unified computing system (UCS) as an attempt to reclaim ownership of the infrastructure away from virtualization and back to the network. 

VMware’s rapid growth has caused some anxiety within IT circles because it’s reminiscent of the rise -- and untimely decline -- of previous companies such as Novell. Additionally, VMware’s domination of the market among certain verticals and indices such as the Fortune 100 has created the idea that virtualization reduces competition.

Responding to VMware: New virtualization vendors
In recent years, vendors that were slow to register VMware’s meteoric rise have responded by developing rival virtualization platforms and products, notably Citrix XenServer and Microsoft Hyper-V. The rise of other virtualization vendors enables a more strategic adoption of other virtualization platforms than was possible in the early years of the previous decade. At the same time, however, this competition has prompted VMware to be even more customer-focused and cost-effective.

There are a couple of areas where the adoption of an additional virtualization platform may be both economically and strategically fruitful. For example, XenDesktop from Citrix is widely recognized as the market leader in supplying virtual desktops and has a narrow technical edge over the current VMware View offering.

Choosing XenDesktop may be of particular interest to enterprises that have a long-standing relationship with Citrix through the use of its Presentation Server technology. Historically, Citrix Presentation Server platform has had a dedicated team responsible for it and -- because of certain application conflicts introduced by the limitations of Microsoft Windows -- these Citrix Server “farms” have been run as independent “silos.”

For existing companies, it may seem to be a natural extension of their existing “access strategy” to maintain this infrastructure, while complementing it with a virtual desktop approach as a blended solution of terminal services, virtual desktops and application streaming. The appeal of this kind of mixing of virtualization vendors is that it allows the two solutions of server consolidation (VMware) and desktop virtualization (Citrix) to co-exist. Because the virtualization platforms would be managed by separate teams, it makes their adoption less political.

When virtualization-platform mixing pays dividends
Another area where the introduction of other virtualization vendors may pay dividends is when a free or very reasonably priced virtualization solution is available for branch offices. Typically, branch offices have a relatively small number of physical servers that can benefit from the entry-level benefits of virtualization.

This is especially true if, for example, no effective backup strategy is in place. The introduction of virtualization to branch offices would allow for a review of current operational practice, leading to the adoption of new processes that have matured in the corporate data center.

Additionally, many branch offices are often linked back to their central data center by relatively modest network connectivity. This makes using high-end virtualization platforms difficult to manage from the data center because of the lack of bandwidth and resiliency.

In a situation like this, the remote offices might benefit from a more stand-alone approach in which virtualization platforms such as Microsoft Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager could be adopted. Although experienced technologists have raised doubts about the Microsoft platform, these criticisms have to be balanced against the relative cost and risk to the business should they become unavailable.

Microsoft has a long history of providing very cost-effective SMB solutions in a sector in which VMware has struggled to claim market share. There is much that a larger enterprise can learn from the efficiencies of the SMB market if it applies this approach to its branch offices.

Using multiple virtualization vendors to build or change your infrastructure can be beneficial, especially if you want to avoid vendor lock-in, promote competition or provide more cost-effective virtualization platforms for branch offices.

This article originally appeared in the Virtual Data Center E-Zine.

This was last published in March 2011

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