Marrying virtualization to servers may result in hardware polygamy

VMware jumps in bed with major vendors, but XenSource says it won't be left at altar

SAN FRANCISCO -- At VMware Inc.'s annual user conference here this week, you could find server virtualization software rival XenSource Inc. tucked away in a booth in the farthest corner of the trade show floor -- similar to the table at a wedding reception that's reserved for the relatives you were hoping wouldn't show.

XenSource, which is being acquired by Citrix Systems Inc., came to VMworld 2007 even though it tried to put a damper on VMware's party by announcing on Sept. 5 -- just days before the start of the conference -- what it described as the industry's first virtualization 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 Monday. And marketing hoopla aside, it was the virtualization market leader that snagged the most important first: Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM all lined up to say they plan to embed VMware's new ESX Server 3i software into their x86 servers.

By 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, said this week that his company won't be left at the altar by server vendors. He predicted 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 said. He added 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 said.

By then, XenSource may already be a part of Citrix, which last month said that it had agreed to buy the virtualization vendor for about $500 million in cash and stock. The deal is expected to be completed by year's end and will give both VMware and Microsoft Corp. a new competitor with deeper pockets than XenSource has on its own.

Getting their software embedded in servers is important to the virtualization vendors. They hope that building the new lightweight hypervisors into systems will expose more users to virtualization technology and make it easier to set up virtual servers. In addition, virtual systems with embedded hypervisors should be quickly recognized by virtualization management tools when they're added to data centers where the technology already is in use.

Bogomil Balkansky, senior director of product marketing at VMware, said 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 virtualization embedded," Balkansky said.

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

But VMware and XenSource, both of which are based in Palo Alto, Calif., agree that server-embedded virtualization will benefit them. Bara said that if virtualization hypervisors "are deployed in an unrestricted fashion, the more the market will grow." Similarly, Balkansky said 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 said that 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 virtualization.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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