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Virtualization start-ups hit reset button

Virtual Iron and XenSource, two contenders in a hot market, will tell LinuxWorld faithful their new ways to take on VMware.

Two start-ups hoping to profit from virtualization are giving details of new strategies this week. It's a sign that the technology, while a hot item, doesn't mean easy profits.

Virtual Iron and XenSource both have altered course with their virtualization products, which is software that lets a single computer run multiple operating systems simultaneously. Virtual Iron has scrapped its own virtualization software in favor of the open-source Xen project. Meanwhile, the leader of that project, XenSource, is steering away from management tools and aiming squarely for virtualization leader VMware.

LinuxWorld Boston 2006 roundup

The two companies are describing their new strategies at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston this week. And with more news in the area from VMware, Microsoft's Virtual Server group and SWsoft, the show might well be called VirtualizationWorld.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, VMware executives might blush at the strikingly similar rhetoric from Virtual Iron and XenSource.

"The market really wants a competitor to VMware," said Simon Crosby, XenSource's co-founder and chief technology officer.

"It's time for a company to step up and be a viable commercial competitor to VMware," said Virtual Iron Chief Executive John Thibault.

It's no surprise why competitors are angling for advantage. A February Forrester survey of 1,221 customers with at least 1,000 employees found that 41 percent of North American customers are using virtualization already or are planning pilot tests. And 60 percent plan to spend more money on the technology in the next 12 months.

VMware leads the market, the study found, with 43 percent of customers considering it most often for x86 server virtualization, compared with 24 percent for Windows Virtual Server. Xen "is not yet on the radar for customers," the report said.

Virtualization, in the form most widely discussed these days, lets a computer run many operating systems simultaneously and therefore lets administrators replace several largely idle servers with one efficiently used machine. The technology works by fooling programs into thinking that they're running on real hardware, when they actually are running on a virtual layer called a hypervisor.

That sleight-of-hand means that operating systems can share the same hardware, or be moved while running from one computer to another to cope with hardware failure or new processing demands.

Virtualization is an established feature in higher-end servers. Now, since it's arriving in mainstream models with x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, companies like Virtual Iron and XenSource are trying to commercialize it as a stand-alone technology.

A big change coming with virtualization support from AMD and Intel means that virtualization companies today can sidestep some of clever engineering techniques VMware employs. AMD Virtualization, set to debut in months, and Intel's corresponding VT, which started arriving in 2005, permit Xen to run an unmodified operating system. In practice, that means Xen can run Microsoft Windows as well as Linux.

The side effect is that VMware will be getting more direct competition from XenSource and Virtual Iron. But that's not all: Another start-up called Parallels also hopes to give VMware a run for its money.

Its $50 hypervisor-based Parallels Workstation 2.1 product runs on Windows and Linux desktop machines right now, and the company plans to launch a midrange server product in mid-2006 and a high-end server product in late 2006, Marketing Manager Benjamin Rudolph said.

Lining up at LinuxWorld
VMware is looking to sustain its leadership in part by opening up interfaces to control virtual machines and making its basic virtual machine software free. And Monday at LinuxWorld, it plans to announce a related move: The EMC subsidiary is offering its virtual machine disk format specification to all comers for royalty-free use. The format competes with Microsoft's VHD specification and Xen's XVM.

Several announcements on virtualization moves are expected at LinuxWorld, which has morphed substantially since it began in the 1990s, following the growing impact of open-source software. The conference's annual East Coast edition runs Monday through Thursday in Boston.

In addition to exhibitors touting operating system-related technologies, representatives from open-source databases and middleware companies are also scheduled to attend. Sessions and keynotes will also cover the impact of open-source business models on the software industry overall, including one entitled "The Death of the Enterprise Software Business Model."

At LinuxWorld, IBM plans to announce services to help customers design, install and configure virtual machines as a way to consolidate Linux servers. It's a sign that Big Blue, a virtualization pioneer with its mainframe servers, is also trying to profit from the technology as it becomes mainstream.

Virtualizing at the operating system is one approach, but SWsoft is taking a higher-level approach that divides a single operating system into multiple virtual environments, each with its own independent applications. At the show, SWsoft plans to announce its Datacenter Automation Suite, a Web-based management tool for tasks such as launching new environments or filling them with software templates.

Xen is catching on in the Linux realm. Indeed, it's being built into premium Linux products from Novell and Red Hat due by the end of the year, undermining the technology somewhat as a standalone product.

XenSource 'parks' XenOptimizer
That fact was part of why XenSource changed direction. "What we found out over last six months, talking to a lot with that the way they want to consume Xen is through Red Hat Enterprise Linux (or) Suse Linux," Crosby said.

Those two Linux sellers now are XenSource business partners. That arrangement is one facet of XenSource's business strategy, while selling a stand-alone product called XenEnterprise to compete with VMware is the other, Crosby said.

XenSource no longer plans to sell its Xen management tool software, XenOptimizer. "We're parking that for now," Crosby said. There already are several management tool companies with which customers are comfortable, and those customers "don't want to see XenSource going head-to-head with those guys," he said.

XenEnterprise is in beta testing now and will be released later this year when processors with VT and AMD Virtualization start becoming widespread, Crosby said. At that time, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company will announce prices.

Virtual Iron plans management tools
Virtual Iron doesn't share XenSource's reticence for management software. With the upcoming version 3 of its software, it will let Xen customers manage Xen virtual machines. For example, it can move virtual machines from one physical computer to another and restart virtual machines when a computer fails.

The Lowell, Mass.-based company plans three versions of its product. The Community Edition will be available freely under the same General Public License (GPL) as Xen itself, includes basic Virtual Iron extensions.

The Professional Edition will be free and supports management of a single server. The Enterprise Edition will let customers manage virtual machines running on multiple computers, with prices starting at $1,500.

Beta testing for Virtual Iron 3 on Linux will begin in July and on Windows in September. Both versions should be generally available before the end of the year, Thibault said.

The strategy marks a dramatic departure for Virtual Iron. Previously, the company had billed its software as providing a way to use InfiniBand high-speed links to join several low-end servers into what amounted to single multiprocessor system.

"Trying to sell InfiniBand into enterprise datacenters was, to say the least, a real challenge. We were spending more time selling InfiniBand than our own product," Thibault said. "What got lost in translation was we had built a very full-featured management platform."

As Virtual Iron made the shift, it left behind its co-founder and former CTO, Scott Davis. "Last November, we decided to go in a different direction. Scott is no longer with company," Thibault said.