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With VMware's help, BEA ditches the operating system

Look Ma, no OS! BEA Systems' new Liquid VM technology will run its WebLogic Server directly on the VMware ESX hypervisor.

Forget VMware president Diane Greene's contention that "the operating system shouldn't matter." Java middleware vendor BEA Systems Inc. is taking that idea one step further and dispensing with the operating system altogether.

At the company's annual BEAWorld conference in Beijing, BEA announced Liquid VM, a Java virtual machine that runs directly on a VMware ESX hypervisor, and WebLogic Server -- Virtualization Edition (WLS-VE) -- the virtualization-ready Web server that runs within it.

For BEA customers, the challenge of running a Web server within a virtual machine is that the hypervisor typically imposes a performance penalty, said Stephen Hess, BEA director of product management for the WebLogic team. BEA's Liquid VM approach is an attempt to "redress the balance," so that applications run at "the same performance they would in the physical world."

The difference in performance is dramatic, said Guy Churchward, BEA vice president for WebLogic products. "Being smarter in the stack allows for about a 100% performance improvement," he claimed.

Stack evolution

As an enterprise software vendor, BEA has been watching the effect that virtualization has had on the "stack," Hess said.

Before virtualization, the stack according to BEA consisted of hardware, an operating system, a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), the Web server (in BEA's case, WebLogic Server) and, finally, the application "like a bean sitting on a stack of pillows," Hess said. With the advent of widespread virtualization, the stack has expanded to include a hypervisor layer between the hardware and the operating system.

But once a hypervisor is installed, the operating system is relieved of its traditional duty as mediator between the hardware and applications, Hess said. In BEA's case, the operating system's remaining functions -- e.g., handling network and disk I/O -- were small enough that the company decided to build those features into the JVM directly as a lightweight "shim," he said. By eliminating the remaining OS clutter, BEA could compensate for any overhead imposed by the hypervisor.

Management boon?

Other than improved performance, James Governor, principle analyst with RedMonk in the U.K., also saw a management benefit to BEA's Liquid VM approach. "Let's say you have four different Java containers running on four separate operating systems -- that's eight things you need to manage," he said. "With Liquid VMs, you just need to manage four."

But Governor could not confirm BEA's claims that Liquid VMs deliver better performance. So far, very few users have chosen to virtualize their application servers, he said. "It's still early days."

That's not to say they won't virtualize. "There's no technical reason [why] they can't," Governor stated and, generally, "everybody seems quite keen to virtualize as many of their resources as possible."

BEA also said that in the second half of 2007 it would deliver the so-called Liquid Operations Center, or LOC, a control component for Liquid VMs. Over time, the company has promised to extend Liquid VMs to other hypervisor platforms. "Our goal is to be the Switzerland of virtualization," said Churchward.

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