Hardware Today: Virtualization and the Mainstream

Virtualization has come a long way since VMware first introduced VMware Workstation in 1999. The product was initially designed to ease software development and testing by partitioning a workstation into multiple virtual machines. Nearly seven years later, VMware Workstation has gone through several transformations, and the technology is no longer relegated to the niche product market.

As server virtualization technology matures, the options multiply.

Instead, it is quickly becoming the preferred way to manage server resources, as more OEMs and ISVs add server virtualization technology to their offerings.

"The big news is the broad buy-in of virtual machine technology for server consolidation," says Pauline Nist, senior vice president for product development & management at Penguin Computing.

That growth, however, is not limited to servers. Virtualization is actually starting to spread across the entire infrastructure.

"Today, IBM virtualization technology can virtualize almost 80 percent of a business's IT infrastructure — across not only servers — but networking and storage devices as well," says Richard Lechner, IBM's vice president for virtualization.

The main concern for most companies is how to virtualize their current servers and applications. This will get increasingly easier as vendors update their virtualization offerings.

VMware, which was acquired by EMC in 2005, remains the largest player in the market. But what was once a lonely frontier is now a well-populated community. There is the open source Xen project, as well as IBM's Virtualization Engine 2.0, Microsoft's Virtual Server 2005, SWSoft's Virtuozzo, and Virtual Iron Software's Virtual Iron 2.0.

"The virtual machine software market space has seen a substantial amount of evolution, with the Xen technology bringing forward the concept of an integrated open source virtualization layer," says IDC research director, system software, Al Gillen. "However, other vendors, such as Microsoft, are seeing hardware virtualization as an important technology, [and] that will be integrated directly into the Windows product portfolio in the future."

And indeed it is. In 2005, Intel and AMD began building virtualization support into their boxes. In February 2006, Intel released its first products along this line, and AMD expects all of its CPUs to support the company's virtualization technology by the mid-year.

"We will continue to see a lot more investment by AMD and Intel in virtualization Hypervisor layer in order to accelerate performance," says IDC analyst John Humphreys.

In addition, IBM, Novell, Oracle, and other software vendors have started shipping prebuilt virtual appliances.

"Virtual appliances are entire pre-configured systems that include virtual hardware, operating system, and pre-installed software application," says Raghu Raghuram, VMware vice president of platform products. "Virtual appliances save customers the time and effort to install and configure software."

Although these developments will continue to ease server virtualization down the road, the main concern for most companies is how to virtualize their current servers and applications. This will get increasingly easier as vendors update their virtualization offerings.

Adoption Curve

According to Humphreys, the biggest news in server virtualization is how quickly it is being adopted, particularly for server consolidation.

"Customers are surprised by how much of the production environment is virtual," he says. "Once the concept is adopted in an organization, it moves rapidly."

"We expect both the rate of customer adoption and ecosystem building to accelerate even further in 2006. Concurrent with accelerated customer adoption, hardware vendors, OEMs, and software vendors are aggressively building products and solutions that enable and facilitate server virtualization." — Raghu Raghuram, vice president of platform products, VMware

Leading the way in this area is VMware. Already the market leader, it doubled its server virtualization customer base in 2005. Even more significant, according to Raghuram, a quarter of its customers have standardized on VMware so the new workloads run in a virtualized environment by default. In addition, they have graduated to using virtualization for more than just server consolidation.

"The overwhelming majority of VMware customers have moved beyond simple server partitioning and implement advanced solutions based on virtualization such as disaster recovery and business continuity," says Raghuram.

To further spread the adoption of its products, on February 6, 2006 VMware released the successor to its GSX server in the form of a free entry-level version, called VMware Server. In the first week alone, it was downloaded about 100,000 times.

"VMware Server is a great way for companies to educate themselves on the benefits of server virtualization," says Raghuram. "Based on our track record, we expect many of these customers to adopt our enterprise-class Virtual Infrastructure."

The company continues to upgrade its existing products. Last October, it released VMware ESX Server 3 and VirtualCenter 2 in addition to two new products: Distributed Resource Scheduling, which is used for automatically balancing workloads across computing resources, and Distributed Availability Services, which automatically restarts virtual machines on a different host when one host fails.

Mix and Match

VMware may have been first out the gate, but its success has attracted the heavyweights to the increasingly lucrative virtualization space. IBM, Dell, and HP, for example, each have server virtualization capabilities available.

IBM takes the same approach to virtualization as it does to other aspects of IT — developing its own products and services while integrating with anything else on the market. Last October, it released the Wizard Virtualization Capabilities for Unix servers. With this, administrators just need three mouse clicks to create a micro-partition on IBM p5 systems for running AIX 5L or Linux virtual machines. In the past year, IBM also released its Virtualization Engine 2.0 for its pSeries, iSeries, and zSeries, including the new System z9. Its eServer xSeries and BladeCenter systems, however, are designed to work with VMware's products.

"By virtualizing storage and server infrastructure, customers are moving away from a stove-piped approach to viewing and managing islands of data and can create a more integrated IT environment," says Lechner. "Some 60 percent to 65 percent of IBM's customers taking advantage of server and storage virtualization are small and medium sized businesses of less than 1,000 employees."

The company is also working on other aspects to make it easier for organizations to fully virtualize IT systems. It has a testing and certification program for ISVs called the "Ready for Virtualization" program. In January, it acquired CIMS Lab, which produces software for tracking resource utilization across a virtualized environment, including servers, storage, e-mail, networks, databases, applications, and operating systems. It then converts the raw usage data into financial information.

Virtual Iron, on the other hand, takes the approach of virtualizing the entire x86-based Linux data center, rather than looking at it on a server-by-server basis. In addition to servers, the software manages the storage and networking.

"VMware's mission is focused on improving the utilization of individual servers and consolidating servers," says Mike Grandinetti, Virtual Iron's chief marketing officer. "Virtual Iron's mission is to streamline and automate the operation of the data center, which includes improving utilization."

Last year, the company released Virtual Iron 2.0, which added support for single- and dual-core AMD Opteron processors as well as IBM BladeCenter Servers. When one of the IBM blades fails, the Virtual Iron software automatically moves the applications to another server. Additional memory or processors can be added to a server on the fly, without interrupting running processes. This summer, Virtual Iron plans to introduce support for Windows servers.

"With the software, users can create virtualized pools of data center resources that can be dynamically allocated on an as-needed basis via a GUI management console and automated policies," says Grandinetti. "In the Virtual Iron environment, any application can run on any machine, or be moved to any other machine without disrupting the application or requiring time-consuming SAN or network configuration changes."

Visualizing Virtual Vistas

While 2005 was a record-breaking year for virtualization, 2006 promises to be even better. "We expect both the rate of customer adoption and ecosystem building to accelerate even further in 2006," says VMware's Raghuram. "Concurrent with accelerated customer adoption, hardware vendors, OEMs, and software vendors are aggressively building products and solutions that enable and facilitate server virtualization."

Looking still further down the road, IDC's Gillen says virtualization will cease being a stand-alone technology and will instead become a value-added feature of other products.

"Server virtualization, meaning virtual machine software as well as related partitioning technologies, will move to become an integrated component of all compute infrastructures," he says.

This article was originally published on Feb 27, 2006
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