by Bernard Golden

Sun’s interesting virtualization initiative

Oct 04, 20075 mins
Enterprise Applications

Sun’s Xen virtualization strategy: ho-hum or woo-hoo?

I was invited along to a Sun announcement today about their virtualization plans. They announced Sun xVM, made up of two pieces: xVM Server and xVM Ops Center (and, by the way, why the one lower case letter and two upper case letters? It’s over-cute and annoying).

xVM Server is essentially, a Xen hypervisor. According to what I heard, there are challenges in calling a Xen-based product Xen if anything is added to the basic code, which, naturally enough, vendors do. It’s a bit confusing to have all these different vendors calling the (roughly) same thing by different names, and not a strategy to build momentum in the marketplace, which one would think all the Xen players would like. Notwithstanding the naming difference, xVM Server has the same architecture as Xen, with a thin hypervisor providing paravirtualization, with a privileged Domain-0 providing device driver access, and hosted Dom-U operating systems providing application support.

xVM Ops Center is the management mechanism for xVM. It runs on a separate box, which Sun said could be Solaris, Windows, or Linux — and browser access is available, making administration pretty flexible. Sun outlined a multi-phase rollout of Ops Center (naturally), with initial preview available late this year. It will, as I understood it, provide guest migration and may even support server pooling.

Sun was a bit coy on the licensing, but more or less stated that xVM would follow Sun’s now-general practice of releasing software as open source, with a subscription offering to provide more robust updates and support. The general license for both xVM products will be CDDL, although each will include open source components with other licenses.

Sun has also inked a deal with Microsoft that will result in paravirtualization-tuned Windows device drivers, which will improve performance of Windows guest machines. This is very similar to the deals Microsoft has cut with Novell and XenSource to deliver paravirtual drivers. The only problem is that each vendor ends up with its own version of these drivers. Wouldn’t the world be better off with one set of Windows paravirtual drivers? It doesn’t seem to me that paravirtual drivers provide anyone with competitive advantage, but customers would find common drivers much more convenient.

If this was all the news about xVM, I’d consider it a pretty ho-hum announcement — along the lines of incumbent vendor keeps up with the pack by providing additional functionality, and by the way, it’s open source. Nothing to see here, move along.

What I found interesting about Ops Center is that it will not only manage the virtualization software infrastructure, but will also manage the underlying hardware — in other words, Ops Center is a general system management product — available as open source. Naturally, it manages Sun hardware better than other vendors’ boxes, but it still can provide a general software/hardware management mechanism in an open source format. And that’s interesting. All the other virtualization/hardware management platforms from other vendors are pricy offerings. An open source offering that supports server pooling would be extremely interesting and would be well worth a lookover.

Of course, it’s not enough to release an open source product. Sun will need to build a community around xVM — perhaps a better way to say it is that xVM will have to generate a community for Sun to be successful with xVM. I’ve been pretty critical of Sun in the past for taking also-ran products and making them open source — just making something open source is no recipe for success, after all. But if a community gets going around its Xen-based virtualization, Ops Center could be a very compelling product — because, if you believe, as I do, that data centers are going to be transformed by virtualization and, as a result, the type of hardware running in those data centers is also going be transformed, then the ability to manage both virtualization and hardware with a single tool will be extremely important.

I’ve also been pretty critical of Sun in the past because I didn’t see the logic in all of their software initiatives. Sun has been successful being a seller of high-cost, high-margin hardware, and it seemed to me that software was a distraction to a hardware business model increasingly challenged by commodity boxes. I’m still not sure I understand the logic of Sun’s overall business model, and am not convinced of their “lead with free software, sell expensive hardware” strategy (although I must say that their relatively expensive Sun Fire X4600 boxes are pretty awesome virtualization platforms). One of the Sun people at the event said that they would be announcing upcoming financial results with software broken out, which will demonstrate how well the strategy is working. I guess we’ll know more about “free software lead” effectiveness soon.

The virtualization vendors have all acknowledged that base virtualization functionality is becoming a commodity; therefore, they’ve shifted their competitive efforts to virtualization management, seeing that as an offering that can provide high margins. By Sun inserting a sophisticated open source management offering into the virtualization management moshpit, they’ll make no friends in the vendor community. Users, however, might take a different view.