Virtually Speaking: Sun Steps Up to the Plate

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Oct 16, 2007


Amy Newman
With xVM, Sun is preparing to swing for the fences as it expands its virtual reach beyond Solaris.

Anyone familiar with the technology industry knows the slogan, "the network is the computer." It's been Sun Microsystems' mantra for 23 years. These days, with network architecture far more complex, it's easy to wonder whether the adage still holds up — especially in a world where the network is as virtual as it is physical.

Sun Microsystems is counting on it to hold up. While VMware squints out from the spotlight, Sun is one of the many vendors in the wings quietly developing virtualization solutions.

Sun, never one shy away from the spotlight, is not in the shadows out of humility. Despite arriving at the virtual overture with its SPARC systems, Sun hasn't kept pace in the non-Solaris space. Sun, is not, however, one to be left in the technological dust, especially when it has years of practice with technology that has been part of its offering from the beginning.

Virtualization is a key component in latest version of the Solaris 10 operating system, and Solaris users have two overlapping choices. Solaris Containers enable a single Solaris OS instance to be divided into multiple containers, with each Container functioning as if it has a dedicated operating system.

If operating system virtualization isn't what you had in mind, Sun also offers a virtual-machine-oriented flavor of virtualization it calls Logical Domains (LDOMs). LDOMs partition the CPU and memory so the hardware itself can be abstracted into multiple guest operating systems.

Where it gets really interesting is that the two can work together: Logical Domains can support multiple instances of operating systems on the same server, and each Solaris instance can then hold multiple containers.

Good stuff, and one of the stronger features of Solaris 10. But Sun isn't exactly a leader when it comes to virtualization right now. Perhaps because this technology is limited to Solaris.

Given the openness of Sun 2.0 (aka, Sun under Schwartz), it's not surprising that it wants to meet the virtualization needs of all its users — even non-SPARC, non-Solaris ones.

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And so was born the xVM initiative, which is not be confused with VMware's .xvm file extension.

Earlier this month, Sun hosted meetings in London, Boston and San Francisco to give the press and analyst communities a preview of its latest virtualization initiative, Sun xVM Infrastructure, formerly codenamed "Project Virginia."

The meeting were designed to "show the big picture and explain the strategy behind individual moves," Director of Solaris Marketing Dan Roberts said in a "Chalk Talk."

Sun xVM Infrastructure consists of xVM Server (a hypervisor component) and xVM Ops Center (a set of management tools). The technology will scale across the shrinking server, storage and networking divide and brings Sun's virtual footprint beyond its homegrown operating system.

The x86 space has no shortage of virtualization action, from hypervisors to management tools, and the field is getting crowded. Sun is counting on xVM Server's interoperability to set it apart. The Xen-based hypervisor is actually Solaris-based, as opposed to Linux-based. However, it can host Windows, Linux and Solaris guest operating systems. It also offers complete Microsoft support for Windows Server guests.

The icing on the feature cake is that, "Windows guests will be able to benefit from Sun technologies like Predictive Self-Healing and ZFS, which are built into the Sun xVM Server," Solaris Vice President of Marketing Marc Hamilton noted in his blog.

The flip side of this is that should an organization opt to run xVM on a SPARC-based system, it will in actuality be using Sun's LDOM hypervisor technology.

As anyone with even a cursory familiarity with virtualization knows, the hypervisor is only a small piece of the puzzle. Thus, the other major component of xVM Infrastructure is xVM Ops Center, a scalable, full-stack management tool.

XVM Ops Center is designed to manage thousands of hardware and software entities — from both a physical and virtual perspective. So if there's a hardware failure, it not only resolves the hardware issue for the box, it also gets the virtual machine back up and running.

Sounds good?

The bad news, and probably the reason Sun hasn't been more vocal, is that it's not yet production-ready. However, If you're jonsing for xVM Infrastructure now, you can download it from the OpenSolaris Xen community. XVM Server is not scheduled to go into official preview mode until January 2008, with a general release planned for second quarter 2008. The first release of xVM Ops Center is slated for December.

XVM may not be ready for prime time just yet, but it's certainly watch-worthy.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch. She has been following the virtualization space since 2001.

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