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Citrix looks outside for help with client hypervisor

Last week, Citrix Systems discussed Project Independence and its plan to develop a Xen bare metal client hypervisor for Intel’s Centrino and Core 2 Duo chips, the same chips that power the world’s desktops and laptops. Now, the company has announced that it is joining hands with venture capital firms Highland Capital Partners and Flybridge Capital Partners to take a minority stake in Virtual Computer of Westford, Mass.

You may remember reading in this blog about Virtual Computer, whose NxTop PC management suite relies on a — surprise!! — Xen client hypervisor. But don’t think for a minute think that Citrix is paying Virtual Computer to do its development dirty work. “We’re not doing the investment in VCI so that they can build our client hypervisor for Intel,” said Andy Cohen, Citrix senior director of strategic development. Rather, the investment has more to do with the relative dearth of Xen experts in this world. “There’s are only so many really smart Xen guys in the world,” Cohen said, and one of them — Virtual Computer’s CTO Alex Vasilevsky, formerly of Virtual Iron — is one of them. Citrix’s “Xen guys”, meanwhile, include its vice president of special products Ian Pratt and CTO Simon Crosby, both formerly of Cambridge University and XenSource. Thus, the focus of the investment will be on “getting some really smart guys around the table.”

But Dan McCall, Virtual Computer president and CEO, acknowledges that VCI has a wealth of expertise about building a hypervisor for the wild-and-wooly world of client computers. Unlike servers, “PCs are complicated devices,” McCall said, that support a bewildering number of graphics and network cards, USB devices and the like, “and all of these different chips and technologies need to be virtualized.” VCI’s job, therefore, “is to make sure that the [virtualized] PC runs as well as it possibly can.”

However, it’s s “a little too soon to know” exactly which elements of the joint Citrix-Virtual Computer hypervisor will go back in to the open source Xen hypervisor, and which will stay proprietary, said Citrix’s Cohen. “There are a number of strategic questions about what goes in to the Xen open source hypervisor, and what part remains commercial,” Cohen said.

For its part, Virtual Computer hasn’t given up hope on its own NxTop PC management suite. “Our goal is to help Citrix get a ubiquitous Xen-based hypervisor out there,” said Dan McCall, the company’s president and CEO. That done, “there’s a whole bunch of intellectual property that is uniquely ours,” he said, for example, NxTop’s provisioning and patching, integrated backup and persistent end user personalization technologies.

The hypervisor itself, is less important, McCall said. “As we built out the product, we always intended to be able to use other hypervisors. So far, we’ve used the iTunes/iPod model where you can control both ends of the user experience, but if someone else’s hypervisor comes around, we’ll plug in to it.”

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