VMware testing data center OS for managing, literally, everything

It outlines a vision for turning x86-based data centers into one big resource pool

VMware Inc. believes every business can be like a Google Inc. and have a data center that is highly efficient and automated -- and eventually so completely virtualized it operates not as a collection of networked machines but as a living organism.

The company and its new CEO Paul Maritz hope to wow the 14,000 people expected at its annual conference this week with a vision of a data center anchored to a list of new products, where every resource in it -- storage, networking and servers -- can shift and respond with fluidity to business needs. Since these products aren't due until sometime next year, underscore the word vision in this announcement.

The planned cornerstone product is VMware's Virtual Datacenter Operating System (VDC-OS) for managing the underlying systems, or "internal cloud." Desktops and laptops are part of this virtualization umbrella, with their operating systems running in a virtual machine on the client computer that is managed back from the data center. VMware also wants to make it possible for IT managers to seamlessly tap into the resources of third-party hosting providers in the same way they can now move server resources inside their data center. It calls this new technology vCloud.

VMworld's vision isn't new, and it has limits. The idea of turning data centers into virtual pools of resources that don't hurt application performance or security, avoid vendor lock-in, and are automated enough to swiftly adapt to business needs is the Holy Grail of enterprise IT. And VMware isn't promising it.

VMware's product set, including its VDC-OS, is limited to x86 architectures. That's why Bogomil Balkansky, VMware's senior director of product marketing, in an interview late last week cited Google as the example of IT's Parthenon and not the data center of some other Fortune 100 company. Google has standardized on x86. Most other large companies and many midsize firms also have environments that include RISC-based servers, Unix operating systems and midrange systems running Cobol-based applications that have been developed over decades -- not on the new systems that Google has bought and built in its 10 short years.

Balkansky said he believes that history is moving to the x86 architecture and that the hardware, with large amounts of memory -- and processing capability such as the six-core Xeon chip Intel Corp. is announcing today -- will only expand its market share at the expense of Unix. Even so, "I'm not saying that Unix is going to go away," he said.

One VMware user testing VDC-OS is Doug Babb, the chief IT systems architect at Hill Air Force Base just south of Ogden, Utah. Babb has been involved in a multiyear project that has so far trimmed six data centers into two and has relied heavily on virtualization and x86 for its 22,000 users.

The U.S. Air Force base several years ago began to move away from Unix-based systems, x86 hardware running VMware's ESX using Red Hat Linux and Oracle. Babb will outline his IT project at one of VMworld's conference sessions.

In the next couple of years, Babb, a contractor for Systems Implementers Inc. in Tucson, Ariz., eventually hopes to reduce the data center to several containers, or a "data center in a box," that are virtual and lights-out, meaning few people are needed to run them. It is one of the reasons he has VDC-OS running on some test servers.

"We need to get much closer to a lights-out data center and to something that we can expand and shrink quickly, depending on demand," said Babb.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., said VMware's approach will raise interesting questions for hardware vendors, in particular, about its long-term effect on their products. If all x86 systems are treated as virtual pools, the underlying hardware may be of less consequence, he said.

One of the sharpest divides in hardware are fault-tolerant systems, a market that VMware will attempt to shake up with its fault-tolerant software technology, due next year.

Fault-tolerant servers are systems that can built to triple redundancy, which means the server has three of everything -- three CPUs, for instance, or three disks -- all running in tandem. If one piece of hardware breaks, the other components take over, and the service never fails. Major users include financial services, telecommunications, emergency services and air-traffic systems.

VMware will release a product next year that it claimed will provide, through virtualization software, virtual machines running in tandem on separate servers, with the same level of data protection as hardware-based systems. Even if traditional fault-tolerant users buck VMware's approach, it presumably will cost less than hardware-based systems that may have appeal with software-as-a-service providers seeking enterprise clients.

Although Microsoft, Citrix, Sun and a host of other virtualization vendors will be vying for customer attention at this conference, VMware has the lion's share of the x86 virtualization market and technology lead, analysts agreed. Perhaps because of that, VMware's management tools in development aren't being designed to also manage Microsoft Corp.'s Hyper-V, for instance.

"Our strategy for now is to provide richer capabilities for our operating systems rather than provide some shallow capabilities for other platforms," said Balkansky.

What VMware doesn't provide, other management vendors may offer, King said -- and cross-platform support will be needed. If vendors can't commonly manage one another's platforms, they will only make operations more complex, not less so, for users, he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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