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The Virtual Machinist: Virtualization vendor strategies

Virtualization is no longer a cutting-edge technology. In moving from hype to mainstream, every customer on the planet is supposed to adopt virtualization within the next few years. Such an expectation affects more than marketing strategies. When wide scale adoption of any technology is forecast, politics enters the mix.

How is virtualization political? The company that controls the lowest level of the software stack has the power to deeply influence the entire market, in effect deciding which vendors to support for the hardware below and the software above.

This kind of political influence isn't new to technology. Think of Microsoft and the operating system (OS). When Microsoft decides to stop supporting an old version of its Windows OS, independent software vendors have to develop new versions of their products or they will be forced out of the market. With server virtualization, OS vendors will lose their leverage, since they only have to handle a standardized set of hardware. Power will shift to in favor of hypervisor vendors.

If you are confident with the bare metal hypervisor provided by current market leader VMware in its ESX Server product, you are aware of the restrictions in terms of supported hardware. Customers have to wait for VMware's approval before deploying a new OS in virtual machines (VMs)—a process which can come within few weeks, as usually happens for Windows versions, or can take years, as happened for Sun Solaris.

So current virtualization players—the ones that provide their own bare metal hypervisor (VMware, Microsoft, XenSource, Virtual Iron and probably SWsoft in the near future), or embed one in their own OS (Novell, Red Hat, Sun, etc.)—are not fighting for just market share: These companies are fighting to take control of hardware.

Red Hat vs. Novell and Xen
Novell has been faster than competitors to implement Xen, the open source bare metal hypervisor, inside its OS. Last summer, Red Hat spent a fair amount of time warning about Xen's immaturity and questioned the wisdom of Novell to include it in SUSE Enterprise Linux 10.

But within six months of Novell's move, Red Hat released its delayed Enterprise Linux 5. Xen immaturity became a distant memory as Red Hat's management touted the achievement of including the hypervisor in its distribution.

Red Hat press releases don't mention that support of Xen VMs is only partial (limited to four VMs), and don't detail how customers will handle virtual infrastructure management, since the tool designed for this task still is in early development.

Red Hat is following a rival's strategy, and both XenSource and Virtual Iron provide virtualization solutions based on the same hypervisor, but at a much lower price. No wonder Red Hat is evaluating alternatives. The new virtualization engine KVM seems like a good candidate. Red Hat has already integrated KVM into the last release of Fedora 7, its community-driven OS.

For its part, Novell will likely maintain its strategy of supporting Xen, mostly because it has a special virtualization partnership with Microsoft. In turn, Microsoft has a special partnership with XenSource.

Both Microsoft and XenSource are working to achieve interoperability and to enhance performance between Windows Server Virtualization (code name Viridian) and XenEnterprise. Microsoft and Novell are working to achieve similar capabilities with Xen on SUSE Linux and Viridian.

Virtual Iron vs. XenSource
Like Red Hat and Novell, both Virtual Iron and XenSource are basing their virtualization offerings on Xen hypervisor. However, XenSource has an advantage.

First of all, a large number of Xen developers work at XenSource. Second, thanks to the previously mentioned deal with Microsoft, XenSource should gain competitive advantage over Virtual Iron in the long term.

To further differentiate itself from competitors, XenSource may enforce the Xen trademark, requesting that Virtual Iron and Red Hat remove any reference to the open source hypervisor until they are more involved with the Xen project. Even if XenSource opts not to go this route, it's interesting to note that Red Hat is not displaying the Xen name on its virtualization pages anymore. For these reasons Virtual Iron, may want to consider Xen alternatives, possibly looking at KVM as well.

VMware vs. OS vendors
To accelerate the radical change of moving hardware control from OSs to its bare metal hypervisor, VMware is counting on the virtual appliance approach. The company is offering customers preconfigured VMs, where few application settings require fine-tuning. The appliance strategy promises fewer maintenance tasks and eliminates the need for OS compatibility and support.

Unfortunately for VMware, this shift in hardware control can be disrupted if OS vendors themselves provide hypervisors as standard features, allowing customers to create VMs in the same way they create new Web sites, new mailboxes or new domain name server entries.

Mandriva, Novell and Red Hat already offer such capabilities in their enterprise-class server products, and Microsoft is heading in that direction as well.

VMware vs. Microsoft
As long as Viridian remains a threat, VMware will consider Microsoft a target.

VMware went after the Windows licensing model with the publication of a paper pushed hard by marketing channels. In the paper, VMware accused Microsoft of trying to slow down and thereby control the adoption of virtualization. The possible motive behind the paper: VMware hoped to jump-start its own licensing strategies before the release of Viridian.

In response, Microsoft flexed its political muscle by reminding VMware of its long-term partnership with parent company EMC Corp. Then Microsoft continued to sign alliances with VMware competitors such as SWsoft.

It's not too difficult to imagine what will happen if Microsoft gets really aggressive. Perhaps the company will start to acquire some of VMware's key partners such as Vizioncore and PlateSpin. Microsoft may even choose to hit VMware in the summer of 2007. That's when EMC has announced plans for VMware's initial public offering.

As virtualization continues to heat up, you can be sure there will be many other strategic twists and turns in the industry.

About the author: Alessandro Perilli, a self-described server virtualization evangelist, launched his influential blog in 2003. He is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for security technologies and the certifications he holds include Certified Information Systems Security Professional; Microsoft Certified Trainer; Microsoft Certified System Engineer with Security competency; CompTIA Linux+; Check Point Certified Security Instructor; Check Point Certified System Expert+; Cisco Certified Network Associate; Citrix Metaframe XP Certified Administrator.

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