Virtualization bolsters Dell worldview

CTO Kevin Kettler touts the technology as a big improvement, saying it extends Dell's "building block" approach. Photos: Dell CTO pushes virtualization

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
BOSTON--Virtualization is appearing only now in mainstream computers, but four or five years ago, it helped drive Dell to its current server philosophy.

So recounted Dell Chief Technology Officer Kevin Kettler here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in a speech touting virtualization as a major improvement. He argued that the technology expands on Dell's "scale out" approach, shunning the selling of servers with more than four processor sockets--a practice in sharp contrast to those of Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and IBM.

Kevin Kettler

"It's pretty clear that using this building-block approach is the right direction for the industry to head. If we architect it correctly, virtualization can play a key role in this," he said.

Virtualization lets a computer run multiple operating systems side-by-side in partitions called virtual machines; with two shipping or imminent features, Intel's VT and Advanced Micro Devices' AMD-V, the same system can run Windows or Linux. Kettler said virtualization's big advantages on servers are letting one machine work more efficiently and making it easier to match computing tasks to changing needs.

Moving virtualization from the high-end multiprocessor "big iron" machines such as IBM mainframes isn't a simple matter. Kettler cautioned that one element, the virtualization of the input-output hardware that leads to networking systems, need to be standardized.

"For I/O (input-output) in particular, there needs to be a lot of work ahead to flesh this out as an industry so you have interoperability, so you can put virtual machines on quite disparate hardware platforms, and all should mix and match beautifully," he said.

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He didn't identify which companies need to ensure standardization, but he indicated that the burden lies with established powers and said Dell will exert pressure to make input-output standardization happen. "There are lot of players that have been entrenched in the virtualization market" that need to understand that standardization is "the only way to make these environments robust," Kettler said.

Another challenge will come from software companies that are accustomed to their products being fixed to particular hardware. With virtualization, it's easy to start and stop jobs as needs require.

"Many software companies are going to be faced with, 'How do we address this from a licensing and business model standpoint?,'" Kettler said. "It will require rethinking in the industry."

Also at the show, Kettler demonstrated a Dell PC running Windows Server 2003 in one virtual machine and Red Hat Enterprise Linux in another. Each operating system could access Web pages hosted by the other, communicating through the Xen "hypervisor" software that manages virtualization.

"Effectively, the machine is acting as a network between these two virtual machines," Kettler said. Such abilities will mean interesting opportunities for desktop PCs--in particular with Linux on the desktop, since built-in virtualization is arriving with that operating system sooner than with Windows.

Kettler also touted his company's internal use of Linux.

The Round Rock, Texas-based company runs a crucial part of its own business on Linux: management of all the inventory involved with customer orders and 500 suppliers. That system manages the 100,000 customized orders daily and tracks a billion inventory items each year, he said.

"If you can imagine a system like this going down--our entire supply chain management--it's a mission-critical area for us," Kettler said.

The system uses a 1-terabyte database powered by a cluster of six four-processor PowerEdge 6650 servers running Linux. That system is augmented by four PowerEdge 6650 file servers running Linux and 10 dual-processor PowerEdge 2650 systems running application server software.