VMware: New King Of The Data Center? update from October 2007

As VMware pushes the hypervisor to supplant the operating system, Microsoft is stuck playing catch-up.

October 13, 2007

13 Min Read
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Usually the bully kicks sand in the little guy's face, but VMware is switching that story. In a speech at LinuxWorld in August, VMware chief scientist Mendel Rosenblum talked up application-specific operating systems provided by ISVs that would run on a hypervisor--no general-purpose OS needed. You can bet Microsoft took notice.InformationWeek Reports

For IT pros, it was smack talk worthy of Terrell Owens. Rosenblum has cause to be cocky. VMware's dazzling partial initial public offering has filled its coffers with almost a billion dollars, and its hypervisor market share looks insurmountable. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows Server 2008, which has yet to take the field, won't include a hypervisor until six months after the server launches.


Whither The OSThough still a nascent technology, hypervisors are poised to supplant the classic operating system as the software layer closest to the hardware and management infrastructure. VMware believes that purpose-built operating systems fitted to apps will further diminish the value of the general-purpose OS. BEA and virtual appliance vendors are providing the first concrete examples of these micro-operating systems. The result is better resource utilization, a more tightly integrated software stack, and a major threat to Microsoft.

But Bill Gates didn't get to be the richest man in the world by eating dirt. Just ask Steve Jobs and Marc Andreessen. Although both execs have rehabilitated themselves in other environs, the butts of the Mac OS and the Netscape browser remain decisively kicked.

Gates' team has played this game before--a nimble competitor with innovative technology eventually gets crushed by the slow but inexorable force of Microsoft's market dominance (abetted by sometimes unsavory business practices). But this time, the ending might be different because virtualization fundamentally changes the rules. Microsoft's tried-and-true strategy may not work, in part because what gives Microsoft its strength--the operating system--is losing its clout.That's because the general-purpose operating system is being squeezed from above and below. Application vendors can build their own microkernels designed to run in a virtual environment, knocking the conventional OS right off the server.

Second--and perhaps more significant--the hypervisor is becoming the main mediator among the components of a data center ecosystem. Large and small vendors alike are building or enhancing their product lines to tap into the hypervisor as a control point, for tracking resource use, provisioning and moving virtual machines, and tying into storage systems.

These developments don't preclude an operating system, but they do minimize its influence, especially as more enterprises embrace the full promise of virtualization--generalized pools of resources that can be applied on demand to various business needs.

In this environment, the operating system is locked inside a virtual machine and shipped from resource pool to resource pool like cargo on a container ship, captained by the hypervisor.

We'll look at how virtualization changes the game and examine VMware's prospects for dominating the server environment and sidelining the operating system.AN ENDANGERED OS?Applications will always need an operating system to run, right? Not with BEA's WebLogic Server Virtual Edition, or WLS-VE. It replaces the conventional OS with LiquidVM, a microkernel-based Java virtual machine. In turn, the Java VM runs directly on a VMware hypervisor, without the need for Windows or Linux. "We realized the hypervisor had eaten into a lot of what an application needs from an OS," says Guy Churchward, VP and product manager of WebLogic products at BEA.Java-based applications are ideal candidates for running without a general-purpose operating system, because they already run inside a Java virtual machine, which abstracts the OS functionality of Windows, Linux, and Unix variants. The Java VM provides some OS functions, including memory and CPU allocation, as well as networking (see chart, below). BEA added other capabilities, such as input/output management, that normally are handled by an operating system to the LiquidVM.

No OS Required
BEA's LiquidVM runs Java apps directly on a hypervisor with no operating system. The Java virtual machine and the hypervisor take over functions normally performed by the OS.




Device drivers















Resource isolation


Live migration



Meanwhile, the hypervisor is handling other functions, such as loading device drivers, which are also usually managed by the operating system. The result, says Churchward, is that the OS ended up completely replicating the functionality of the Java VM and the hypervisor.

By jettisoning the OS entirely, Churchward says, WLS-VE consumes 25% to 50% fewer resources, such as memory and CPU cycles, while boosting overall system performance. Other benefits include reduced management, because IT doesn't have to maintain a separate operating system.

First American, a Fortune 500 business information services company, runs two applications on the WLS-VE platform. Mark Vaughn, manager of Web hosting services for the First American Mortgage Information Services Group, plans to increase the company's use of WLS-VE. "Going forward, I anticipate that almost all of our BEA deployments will be on virtual platforms, and we'll see a growing presence of WLS-VE," Vaughn says.Not only will this architecture eliminate OS management costs, Vaughn says, but he also expects to increase the number of virtual machines per physical server because of the reduced overhead of a microkernel vs. a full operating system. In addition, WLS-VE supports several of VMware's most popular features, including VMotion, which lets managers move applications from one physical machine to another without disruption.

Wireless technology vendor Qualcomm expects to deploy a testing environment for Liquid VM in the near future. "These appliances should perform better and would likely use fewer resources," says Paul Poppleton, senior staff engineer at Qualcomm. "Done correctly, they should be infinitely more secure and require far less patching."

Other IT professionals are intrigued by the proposition of jettisoning the general-purpose operating system. "Speaking personally, I think it's a great way to go," says Gregory Smith, director of dynamic services for T-Systems North America. T-Systems, owned by Deutsche Telekom, is an IT service provider for DT, Volkswagen, and other global enterprises. "A full-featured, everything-to-everybody OS is not a requirement for every application," Smith says.

chart: Which Hypervisor vendore do you use?

Not everyone is as enthusiastic, however--particularly those with an operating system to sell. "Bad idea," says David Greschler, Microsoft's director of integrated virtualization. "The model suggests that the app vendors have to become the owners of these operating systems, so you have 100 apps that are running a slightly different version of a semi-OS, and you have to go to each of them to get the patch." He says this approach won't scale if more vendors go down BEA's path. That sentiment seems to fly in the face of the current IT experience, where appliance operating systems are routinely managed by independent software vendors.

Greschler also asks whether ISVs really want to take on the responsibility of developing these semi-operating systems, a concern that T-Systems' Smith echoes. "There's a lot of moving parts here," Smith says. "You have to assume nirvana, where ISVs deliver these nice clean containers. It sounds attractive, but it's a long way between here and there."While VMware's comments about general-purpose operating systems seem to be aimed at Microsoft, virtualization is game-changing for Linux, too. IBM and Sun Microsystems have both positioned Linux as a platform for running Java-based applications, but initiatives such as Liquid VM eliminate the need for the OS. First American would probably be running its applications on Linux if it weren't using BEA's LiquidVM, Vaughn notes.

ISVs that want to create micro-operating systems for other applications will probably start with Linux, just as appliance vendors do now. Is it still Linux? Well, sort of. You'll be running the Linux core, but instead of getting it from IBM, Red Hat, or Novell, you'll get a custom-fitted version from your ISV.NOT SO FAST
There are downsides to running applications without an operating system.

First American can't install third-party clients on the platform. "You either need to find a Java driver or remain on a traditional OS," Vaughn says. He notes that a small percentage of his deployments will remain on a conventional operating system because of this issue.

Other features that users might find helpful have also been removed. There's no GUI, and no support for local devices, including printers. And instead of using a local hard drive, WLS-VE must use network-attached storage.

Management also is an issue. Many systems management and application management products interact with the operating system. Without the OS to act as mediator, existing IT management processes, such as the ability to automatically generate trouble tickets, might need to be overhauled.

chart: What percentage of your data center will be virtualized in the next 12 months?

It may even require additional management software. Case in point: BEA is rolling out the Liq-uid Operations Center, an agent-based system that deploys and manages both virtualized and nonvirtualized Java applications. If other application vendors take BEA's approach, they, too, will introduce their own management systems and agents, increasing the number of standalone consoles in the IT environment.

Of course, BEA isn't proposing that all general-purpose operating systems should be done away with. WLS-VE is aimed at service-oriented architectures, in which a number of services are brought together, often on the fly, to create an überservice. The more flexible and streamlined you make those components, the more efficiency you can wring from the architecture.

At present, Liquid VM runs only on VMware's ESX server, but BEA says it will support XenSource's hypervisor by the end of the year. The company also intends to support Microsoft's forthcoming hypervisor.THE HYPERVISOR RISINGIn 2006, IDC predicted that factory installations of preconfigured operating systems on servers would decline as customers instead chose server hardware with a hypervisor preinstalled.

VMware's latest release aims to make that prediction a reality. Last month, it introduced ESX Server 3i, a 32-Mbyte hypervisor that comes integrated with hardware shipped by server vendors, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Fujitsu. These servers will boot directly into a hypervisor. XenSource also announced XenExpress OEM Edition, which will let server vendors install the Xen hypervisor. Xen, which is being acquired by Citrix Systems, says it will announce OEM partners later this year.

chart: Rate your concerns about each of the following virtualization issues

This represents a significant change to the old order, in which the operating system represented the core of a software infrastructure. With ESX 3i and XenExpress OEM, the hypervisor undercuts the OS and usurps its position as the default software layer in a server environment.The more that the virtual layer becomes the mediator, the more an ecosystem grows around it, both in hardware and software. The hypervisor becomes the point of contact between other essential layers of the enterprise, including management and storage. VMware has more than 150 technology part-ners building products or integrating existing systems around its virtualization platform, from small startups to giants such as BMC, HP, IBM, and Symantec.

In many enterprises, the default assumption is that new applications will be deployed in virtualized environments. "Customers are saying they have to justify not virtualizing new apps," says Rich Fomin, lead product manager for BMC Performance Manager.

As companies consolidate their server infrastructures to reduce costs and create service-oriented resource pools, virtualization's influence on the data center will only grow. Issues such as uptime and availability will be directly affected by the way VMs consume resources, which makes the hypervisor a key management touch point.

Qualcomm agrees. The company's data center makes extensive use of virtualization to provide applications on demand to its business units. The company runs about 2,000 simultaneous virtual machines, down from about 3,500 over the past four years. It decommissioned 1,500 to avoid unnecessary costs such as licensing and resource consumption.

Part of the reason Qualcomm found itself overprovisioned was that business units hadn't adjusted to the way that virtualization changes resource allocation and the capacity of IT to meet business needs. "The concept of having a machine that a business unit owns has changed," Poppleton says. "It used to be, once they got hardware, they held on to it for dear life." Virtualization means that resources can be spun up or spun down on demand. To that end, Qualcomm uses software from Dunes, acquired by VMware last month, to automate the commissioning and decommissioning of virtual machines.EARLY LEADS
As the market leader, VMware is well positioned to take advantage of the continuing expansion of virtualization. And while it's never safe to count out Microsoft, and XenSource will be a stronger competitor under Citrix, the company essentially has the field to itself until the first or second quarter of 2008, when Microsoft's hypervisor will be available on Windows Server 2008.Microsoft has shown itself to be a master at making up for lost time. And the field is nowhere near saturated. IDC estimates that only 17% of the worldwide server market will be virtualized by 2010, up from 5% in 2005.

But so far, time is on VMware's side. BMC's Fomin says he's surprised at how fast virtualization technology is being adopted. "When I grew up, in the data center you always waited for version 2.1," he says. "But customers are adopting the technology at a much faster pace from when it's made available than I've ever seen."

chart: Will Hypervisors make the OS irrelevant?

And because VMware is the market leader, other vendors are compelled to forge relationships and build products around its platform. As the customers of third-party vendors adopt virtualization, they push the vendors to create advanced features that are virtualization-aware. For instance, BMC's Performance Manager for Virtual Servers, which now supports only VMware's ESX platform, will be adding features around virtual machine mobility, including the ability to track the number of times a VM is moved, which may indicate that particular VMs need a bigger resource pool.

Smaller vendors and startups also are focusing their development attention on VMware. That's the case with VKernel, which has a virtual appliance by the same name that provides resource monitoring and chargeback capabilities only for ESX environments (see story, "How Much Is That VM In The Window?").

Of course, third-party vendors will always go where the money is. If Microsoft and XenSource earn greater market share, vendors will develop to those platforms as well. But that's more lost time as these companies lay down the legal and technical groundwork required to support other hypervisors. Meanwhile, VMware can demonstrate to potential customers that a robust infrastructure already is in place.THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KINGIt's too early to declare a winner in the battle between Microsoft and VMware. But the upstart has done an admirable job of preparing the ground in its favor. Every day that Microsoft's hypervisor is absent is another day VMware's hypervisor gains easy market share. VMware has assembled a large and growing ecosystem of big and small vendors that are increasingly making VMware the linchpin of a virtualized data center.

Most important, the transition to a virtualized environment, in which the operating system is no longer the software foundation of a server infrastructure--and in some cases isn't even required to run applications--robs Microsoft of a core power base.

Virtualization won't kill the operating system, but it does shift the balance of power. The ground is too unstable to declare a new king, but one thing is clear: The throne will be a hypervisor.

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