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Open Virtualization Alliance unlikely to unseat VMware

Users aren’t sold that the Open Virtualization Alliance can promote KVM over VMware, the "safe” virtualization choice.

The Open Virtualization Alliance is growing fast, but Linux users say it will take more than a marketing alliance to boost adoption of the KVM hypervisor over VMware ESX.

I'm generally suspect of alliance organizations -- typically it's a marketing love-fest. analyst Stu Miniman

Officials say the goal of the Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA), founded in May to promote the use of the Linux Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM), is not to trash VMware. Still, it’s clear that the virtualization heavyweight is in the OVA’s sights.

“There’s a very high degree of familiarity with and comfort with the incumbent virtualization technology from VMware,” said Scott Crenshaw, vice president and general manager of Red Hat’s cloud business unit and Red Hat’s official representative on the OVA board. 

“The purpose of the open virtualization alliance is to create the same level of awareness and also comfort and understanding of the virtualization technology that’s available from the open source community,” he said.

Founding members of the OVA include BMC Software, Eucalyptus, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Red Hat and SUSE, and more than 65 new members joined in recent weeks.

KVM could use the help. According to the latest market research from IDC, VMware accounted for around 80% of the market by revenue the last two years and a little less than 50% by units sold, while KVM’s market share remains too small to be broken out in IDC’s reports. Crenshaw also declined to quantify the market adoption for Red Hat’s KVM to date, instead pointing to the growth of the OVA as indicative of rising demand.

The OVA touts the benefits of KVM, including its performance in SPECvirt benchmark tests, built-in quality-of-service features, and the sVirt security utility based on SELinux, which Crenshaw said allows rogue processes to be contained, making it harder for an attack on one virtual machine (VM) to spread.

Some industry watchers say the alliance’s publicity push can’t hurt.

“KVM's market share really has nowhere to go but up,” said IDC analyst Gary Chen. “The alliance does seem to have real legs under it and that will definitely help KVM, I believe...It will also help build out the ecosystem that is so crucial for virtualization today.”

There has also been mounting evidence over the last year that multiple-hypervisor deployments are growing in enterprise IT shops.

However, even KVM proponents attending this year’s Red Hat Summit said getting KVM deployments into production remains difficult, particularly when the organization has already standardized on another hypervisor. And users in Linux shops say they doubt the OVA will induce a hypervisor swap-out.

Users reluctant to go against the grain
Duane Wylie, senior IP administrator for Gonzales, La.-based internet service provider EATEL, said about 75% of the estimated 70 VMs in his shop run CentOS Linux operating systems, but the company is sticking with VMware’s vSphere 4.1 hypervisor, in part because of VMware’s position as the market leader and its longevity in the market.

Past experience also informs this decision, Wylie said.

“We used to run an all-Solaris shop on SPARC hardware, and we found ourselves getting boxed into a corner because the industry was moving more toward x86 hardware with Linux OSes or Windows, and there were less and less applications being run on Solaris,” he said. That’s when the company made the decision to move to x86 on Linux, “and we’ve tried to keep ourselves positioned in a way where if we see that the majority of IT companies are moving in a certain direction, we want to stay in that realm so that there are more options open to us.”

Jeffrey Papen, founder of Peak Web Hosting Inc., prefers open source Xen, but said customers with mission-critical virtualized applications tend to stick with VMware. “The problem is one of…perception,” he said. “A coalition doesn’t suddenly make people think that you’re a player in enterprise, [or] make them think that ‘I’m going to stake my job on you.’”

In Papen’s mind, taking an open/alliance stance “reinforces VMware’s position as dominant leader.” He said one customer, a business specializing in credit card fraud detection, wants to cut costs, for example, but ditching VMware virtualization is out of the question. Customers, he said, “want a company. They want people who will lose their jobs and their stock price goes in the toilet [if something goes wrong], and they can say, ‘This is the organization we threw our weight behind, and here’s why.’ VMware is absolutely benefiting from [OVA] taking an ‘alliance’ and ‘open’ position.”

Anyone but VMware? 
Coalitions targeting a market leader are not new to IT. Throughout the ‘90s there were several “anyone but Microsoft” efforts, such as Vendor Independent Messaging, backed by Novell, Lotus and IBM to counter Microsoft’s email dominance. OpenDoc was a compound document standard pushed by a similar array of organizations against Microsoft Object Linking and Embedding.

Red Hat itself faced a vendor coalition in the early aughts called United Linux. None of these alliances did much to disrupt Microsoft technology adoption or unseat Red Hat as a dominant Linux player. And that may bode ill for the OVA, some said.

The OVA “is big time déjà vu of…United Linux and similar themes of the past,” said Greg Schulz, founder and senior advisor for the Server and StorageIO Group.

“I’m generally suspect of alliance organizations – typically it’s a marketing love-fest without much real substance and political agendas are more important than ‘the greater good’,” wrote analyst Stu Miniman via email. “Since the group doesn’t have any [new] standards or API charters, it seems to be primarily around marketing KVM solutions as an alternative to VMware and Microsoft [Hyper-V] – of course, most of the big players (especially HP, IBM, Intel) do lots with both VMware and Microsoft, so how much [this group] will accomplish is questionable.”

On the other hand, Miniman said the OVA could do some good. As open source technology gains steam -- he cited Hadoop momentum as a proof point -- he would like to see the alliance garner the money, press and marketing might to push KVM solutions to maturity.  

Red Hat’s Crenshaw disputed any contention that the OVA is cut from the United Linux cloth.  

“OVA isn’t attempting to change [open source] development processes…so [OVA] is a completely different approach than was taken with various Linux standardization attempts in the past,” he said.

As for the “anyone but Microsoft” comparison, Crenshaw pointed out that while use of Microsoft products remains ubiquitous, Linux also retains a firm foothold in the enterprise. About 22% of physical servers today run Linux-based OSes, Crenshaw said, citing IDC. Linux tends to run servers used for mission-critical applications.

“That’s not actually a bad goal to aim for,” he said. “There’s no reason that KVM adoption can’t be substantially higher than Linux penetration.”

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