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Experts weigh in on open source platforms, market

In this Advisory Board, our experts discuss the pros and cons of open source virtualization and which platforms are giving proprietary vendors a run for their money.

Once considered a niche concept in an industry dominated by closed-source companies, open source virtualization is now an integral part of the virtualization landscape. Both major vendors and small companies alike build their infrastructures on top of hypervisors, and some commercial players, such as VMware, have partnered with open source software providers to deliver their own open source platforms.

We asked our Advisory Board members to weigh in on the open source virtualization market in 2017: what trends they've noticed, which vendors lead the market and what changes they anticipate going forward.

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

For many years now, VMware has been the 800-pound gorilla in the virtualization space, and for good reason. Its technology has proven solid, its features extensive and its support has typically been top notch, but all of that comes a high price tag. As with any product at the top of the heap, challengers emerge to compete for that market share. While Microsoft Hyper-V sort of stacks up in the paid arena, the real threat is open source virtualization platforms. KVM and Xen are open source platforms that give customers options that paid virtualization products don't provide.

One of the keys to open source platforms is the tradeoff between costs, features and support. Linux, in all its forms, has been part of the data center for many years, but mostly from the edge. Although a percentage of applications and servers use Linux-based products, it's still a Windows world simply because of the sheer volume of applications and staff trained in Windows. While one might assume Linux-based virtualization would follow the same pattern, virtualization is a different animal. Simply put, the scale and needs of the hypervisor are vastly different than those of traditional servers or desktops. Hypervisors are more of a stand-alone product that exists outside the perimeter of the traditional IT customer's view.

Since they often fly under the radar, it isn't necessary for hypervisors to have the best interface available or offer every bell and whistle under the sun. This, in turn, means they come at a lower cost. Open source virtualization platforms may require additional configurations or staff training in security, features and performance, but that's a small price to pay compared to licensing costs.

This idea is not lost on VMware, as it continues to adjust pricing, packages and features based on new offerings from the open source community. Unlike application servers or desktops, open source hypervisors can have a strong place in the data center for simple virtualization. But therein lies the problem: Many companies either can't or won't stop at the basic virtualization level, and need the 800-pound gorilla when they want to take the next step to software-defined networking or software-defined storage.

Stuart Burns, Marsh & McLennan

When it comes to using open source virtualization platforms, especially open source hypervisors, 'free' doesn't necessarily come for free.
Stuart BurnsMarsh & McLennan

Open source platforms may not receive as much market exposure as software from proprietary vendors, but open source technology underpins a huge number of business processes and application technologies. Even within the open source virtualization market, commercial open source players -- such as Red Hat and Oracle -- dominate marketing money talks. Some examples of popular services built on open source virtualization platforms include well-known names like Amazon Web Services, Digital Oceans and Rackspace, as well as smaller internet service providers, software as a service (SaaS) providers and web service providers that deliver virtual private servers.

There continues to be a massive uptake of free or open source virtualization platforms with the exodus to the cloud. Most end users and customers don't care which hypervisor their VMs run on so long as their VMs are reliable and have high performance levels. For example, all newly created VMs in Amazon run on top of the open source Xen hypervisor.

Speaking from personal experience, many software vendors are moving their stacks to SaaS, along with a commensurate subscription model per user per month. In the past, this type of software was designed for on-premises use, but vendors are changing their business model to use the cloud. These companies use large scale providers that sit on open source hypervisor platforms in the background. These vendors consume resources from well-managed open source hypervisors; there's no need for expensive proprietary hypervisors.

The advanced hypervisor functionality has little purpose in the new world of microservices where machines can scale automatically. The move isn't always about price, either. That said, running production loads on a server without a software support contract is somewhat imprudent.

KVM and Xen hypervisors have gained popularity because they are highly customizable to the exact needs of the company. Some businesses have no interest in high availability or fault tolerance, but do need shared storage; others have different needs. They also offer simplified licensing, especially in the non-Windows arena. In spite of these positives, there are some negatives to consider. Xen and KVM are not as mature in terms of ease-of-use as proprietary players like VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V. When it comes to using open source platforms, especially open source hypervisors, "free" doesn't necessarily come for free. While the technology itself may come at no cost, businesses still need to employ professionals who understand both virtualization and Linux platforms. Due to this, KVM and Xen may be more appealing to large companies than small ones.

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