Virtual software appliances: A no-brainer or a nonstarter?

Despite vendor support, the appliances have yet to catch on among IT shops

Virtual software appliances are applications -- mostly server ones, at this point -- that come to users prepackaged with a thin operating system layer. Essentially virtual machines (VM) created by independent software vendors or systems integrators, rather than IT administrators, virtual software appliances help eliminate potential conflicts with the host hardware's operating system or other applications, reducing crashes and improving security.

Many vendors are enthusiastic about virtual software appliances. They include virtualization players such as rPath and VMware; Linux vendors such as Red Hat, Canonical and Novell; and application vendors such as Oracle.

For instance, Novell Inc. is working on a SUSE Studio tool kit that will allow vendors to easily build virtual appliances of their applications on top of a JEOS (just enough operating system) version of SUSE Linux Enterprise 11, according to an interview last week with Markus Rex, Novell's senior vice president and general manager for open platform solutions.

Market research firm IDC also likes the long-term prospects for virtual software appliances. Though it only expects the market to total $156.3 million this year, IDC predicts $1.2 billion worth of virtual software appliances to ship in 2012. Linux-based appliances will be neck and neck with those that are Windows-based, with each having almost half of the market, and Unix-based appliances running a distant third.

The mainstreaming of server virtualization as well as preconfigured hardware appliances (think LAMP Web servers or Oracle Corp.'s Database Machine) is enabling corporate IT to accept virtual software appliances.

According to the results of an IDC survey released in February, 20% of 302 IT managers at U.S. companies said they were already running some software appliances in production, up threefold from 7% the year before. Midsize companies are deploying them the most, with network management and business applications such as ERP the most popular.

Some IT managers reluctant to buy in

Despite the promising data and the vendor support, virtual software appliances are no sure bet to catch on, according to Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc.

"The idea makes a lot of intellectual sense, but IT folks haven't really bought into it," he said.

For one, virtual software appliances try to smooth things in the data center by taking the operating system out of the equation. That's a radical notion to many, Haff said.

"Frankly, IT is used to the idea that operating systems are sort of important. They are used to having to qualify and certify software for specific OS versions," he said. "The idea that the OS is part of the app? That is a big leap."

Others on the corporate IT side, such as Peter Schmidt, said they prefer the control of building virtual machines themselves rather than taking them straight from vendors.

"We do a lot of stuff in-house anyway," said Schmidt, who is director of business intelligence at Centro LLC, a Chicago-based media planning firm.

Haff agreed, pointing out that Linux operating systems such as Red Hat and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise "are already fairly modular." "You can already choose to not install all of the roles or packages in Linux, and achieve a 'soft JEOS' effect," he said. "Large IT shops do exactly that."

Also, while virtualization and Linux vendors love virtual software appliances, Windows-centric ones such as Citrix Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. do not. Microsoft, in particular, "has a great self-interest in ensuring that the operating system remains extremely relevant," Haff said. Such companies are instead pushing application virtualization as an alternative.

Independent software vendors that are simultaneously being pulled toward putting their applications into the cloud or onto virtual software appliances are often putting off the latter.

For example, Pentaho Corp. on Monday released a cloud version of its open-source business intelligence software. But it hasn't seen enough customer demand to stride down the virtual software appliance route.

"There's a lot of talk, but I haven't seen much demand for people to procure a virtual software appliance straight from us," said Lance Walter, Pentaho's vice president of marketing.

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