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Can VMware, Xen, Microsoft match newbies' innovations?

Newbies innotek, Qumranet and Parallels recently entered the virtualization arena. But can they compete against VMware, Xen and Microsoft?

Enterprise customers already confused by a myriad of platforms -- two from VMware, four Xen-based commercial variants from XenSource, Virtual Iron, Novell and Red Hat, and a free alternative from Microsoft – now have even more choices. New and worthy competitors are entering the arena, including Qumranet, Parallels and innotek.

Given the huge market share and history of VMware, the high impact of Xen on open source communities, and the virtually unlimited economic power of Microsoft, it's easy to think virtualization industry equilibriums are set, at least for hardware virtualization platforms.

But computer history tells us established leaders always fall down and small emerging companies always have a chance to take the market. Even against Microsoft.

Let's look at some up-and-comers who may shake up the establishment.

Qumranet and KVM
Qumranet is succeeding where big vendors like VMware and XenSource failed: conquering the Linux kernel.

Qumranet is a new company working with the open source Kernel Virtual Machine or KVM. KVM has been included in operating system code after just six months of development and, despite its evident immaturity, it's available today for any Linux user on the planet using a Linux distribution with kernel 2.6.20 or higher.

Fedora 7 and Knoppix 5.2 already offer it, for example.

Why is KVM so important, and how has it gained this privileged position in such a short amount of time? It's simply because its architecture grants Linux, as an operating system, control of hardware, and then control of the ecosystem.

Despite attention from community and media and investments from top market leaders like IBM, Xen couldn't ever aspire to the same position, because its architecture implies that hardware is under hypervisor control and not under Linux control.

Taking advantage of modern virtualization extensions Intel and AMD are offering in their newest CPUs, Qumranet developers created a hardware virtualization solution (like VMware ESX Server and Xen are), allowing users to run other Linux flavors, BDS, Solaris and even Windows in its virtual machines.

Thanks to these powerful extensions KVM is also able to run 32- and 64-bit guest operating systems (OSes) at the same time, which is a remarkable achievement for a so young product.

In KVM, all the typical tasks a hypervisor has to take care of are demanded to existing Linux facilities.

This approach has a disadvantage, in that if something goes wrong at Linux level, KVM cannot recover. But it has advantages, such as Linux developers' experience in critical subsystems like memory scheduler. At the end of the day, it simplifies and speeds up developers work, so that new and complex virtualization capabilities, like guest OS live migration, have been added in an unprecedented short amount of time.

Surely, today KVM is not ready for production environments or corporate deployments, as it is still missing some notable features like virtual SMP and an enterprise-class management console; but its strategical position makes it a serious threat for VMware dominance in the coming years.

Parallels Desktop and Server
Parallels is a Russian company which had a complex evolution until its acquisition by SWsoft. The company entered the market directly competing with VMware and Microsoft on the desktop virtualization segment, trying to offer a simpler platform for Windows and Linux users.

Without leaving this audience, Parallels has had the foresight to target another, more limited, but possibly more rewarding market: Apple.

After porting its solution to Mac OS X and beating VMware to market there, the Parallels group and Parallel Desktop product has gotten extensive media coverage and rave reviews from users. Even Apple itself publicly recommends Parallels Desktop.

Next on the horizon is the Windows/Linux enterprise audience, which will be served by Parallels Server, which is now is development.

The first server product from the company will be a hypervisor, competing directly against VMware ESX Server, Xen and its commercial alternatives, Microsoft upcoming product called Windows Server Virtualization (formerly code-named Viridian) and, as detailed above, KVM.

The biggest difference with these competitors anyway is that Parallels will be the only company to offer a hypervisor also for Apple hardware.

Like Qumranet, Parallels gains the benefits of Intel VT and AMD-V CPU extensions simplifying complex task executions, capabilities that VMware had to improve in years of development. So, even though the Parallels Server is still in alpha status, the company is already able to announce some notable features, like true multi-core technology inside virtual machines, which today are not available in any other virtualization product.

Like the KVM developers, Parallels developers only have to focus on hypervisor features and performances, because the management interface will be developed by parent company, SWsoft. Of course, SWsoft has plenty of experience, having developed Virtuozzo, an OS virtualization product. The new console will be able to manage both SWsoft Virtuozzo and Parallels Server platforms at the same time.

In my opinion, the Parallels products should definitely be on IT organizations' radar today and in the future.

This German based start-up has just entered the hardware virtualization market, deciding to start competing on the desktop segment, just like Parallels has.

Unlike Parallels, and probably due to competitive issues, innotek moved away from commercial licensing very quickly and started distributing its VirtualBox for free under GPL license. It also started its port to Mac OS X, hoping to replicate the success collected by Parallels.

Despite the fact that today innotek has no solutions for enterprise customers, it's a company worth monitoring for two good reasons:

  • Its developers served Microsoft in some phases of Virtual Server development, and that implies that they have some uncommon knowledge in this area; and,
  • The company will soon launch its own hypervisor: innotek hyperkernel.

The upcoming product, innotek claims, will implement microkernel architecture, which is unavailable on existing commercial solutions provided by VMware, XenSource, Microsoft, etc., and which -- on paper – will be able to achieve much better performance than current offerings.

In the same area, universities are working on a new microkernel architecture, L4, and have been experimenting with its uses for virtualization tasks for some time.

No stasis in virtualization innovation
I've presented just three examples of the innovative vitualiazation work being done by start-up companies. We can safely conclude that the power distribution in the virtualization market is not set in stone. Today's major players will see even more competition within next five years.

In general, I think that future enhancements planned by AMD and Intel will simplify and improve performances of virtualization platforms so much that creating a hypervisor will be a matter of weeks not years.

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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