Hypervisors becoming key issue in virtualisation race

VMware has signed deals with server vendors, but XenSource says it also has deals in the pipeline

At WMworld 2007, VMware’s annual user conference, held earlier this month in San Francisco, you could find VMware rival XenSource tucked away in a booth in the furthest corner of the trade show floor.

XenSource, which is being acquired by Citrix, came to VMworld 2007 even though it tried to put a damper on VMware’s party by announcing on September 5 — just days before the conference — what it described as the industry’s first virtualisation hypervisor that can be embedded in servers.

It may have been the first announcement of an embedded product, but VMware introduced its own “thin hypervisor” on September 12. And marketing hoopla aside, it was the virtualisation market leader that snagged the most important first: Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM all lined up to say they plan to embed VMware’s new ESX Server 3i software into their x86 servers.

In contrast, XenSource currently has no public commitments from any hardware vendors to support its XenExpress OEM Edition software, which is based on the Xen open-source hypervisor.

However, John Bara, XenSource’s vice president of marketing, says his company won’t be left at the altar by server vendors. He predicts that by mid-2008, XenSource’s embedded software “will be offered as an option on more than 50% of the x86 servers in the world”.

Despite VMware’s announcement, “the hardware is up for grabs”, Bara says. He adds that the server vendors aren’t signing exclusive agreements with VMware and that XenSource also has contracts with have makers to embed its product. Those deals will be announced in the weeks and months to come, Bara says By then, XenSource may be part of Citrix, which last month agreed to buy the virtualisation vendor for about US$500 million (NZ$711 million). The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the year and will give both VMware and Microsoft a new competitor with deeper pockets than XenSource has on its own.

Getting their software embedded in servers is important to the virtualisation vendors. They hope that building the new lightweight hypervisors into systems will expose more users to virtualisation technology and make it easier to set up virtual servers.

In addition, virtual systems with embedded hypervisors should quickly be recognised by virtualisation management tools when they’re added to datacentres where the technology already is in use.

Bogomil Balkansky, senior director of product marketing at VMware, says he expects the server vendors to release their first products with ESX Server 3i built in late this year, starting with select models and expanding the number of systems over time. “In a few years, the majority of, if not all, x86 servers will have virtualisation embedded,” Balkansky says.

That means hypervisor technology will become something of commodity, and the virtualisation vendors will be left to compete on factors such as performance and management capabilities.

But VMware and XenSource agree that server-embedded virtualisation will benefit them. Bara says that if virtualisation hypervisors “are deployed in an unrestricted fashion, the more the market will grow.” Similarly, Balkansky says embedding the software in servers “is a way to get our technology as broadly distributed as possible”.

VMware remains so confident of its market lead that it treats VMworld as an industry event and invites competitors such as XenSource to rent space on the trade-show floor. Bara says he appreciated the chance to display XenSource’s product at the conference and that the two companies are cooperating on efforts to establish industry standards for virtualisation.

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Tags hypervisorstechnologyVMwarevirtualisationxensource

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