Virtual tales and real-life stories

VMware's position in the server virtualisation market may be under attack, but its influence is likely to remain undiminished.

When you have over 90 per cent of a market, there is really only one direction to go - downwards - especially when major players decide to bundle in. But VMware, the king of x86 virtualisation, can take heart from the predictions of rapid growth in virtualisation coming from the analysts.

"We expect VMware to lose share, but the market will grow so quickly that it will still grow itself," says Gartner's agenda manager for virtualisation, Phil Dawson. Now 5-6 per cent of all servers are virtualised, with Gartner expecting this to more than double to 14 per cent in just over two years, by 2010. IDC tells a similar story in terms of raw numbers, estimating that there will be eight million servers in the world virtualised by 2010 compared with 3.5 million in 2007.

Furthermore, the proportion of servers suitable for being virtualised is currently 50 per cent and expected to reach 70 per cent by 2010, according to Gartner, indicating the huge scale of the potential market. This explains why all the major players are entering, which again is not all bad news for VMware. While Microsoft, Oracle, Sun, Citrix and Novell are all competitors, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Fujitsu-Siemens, Dell and Unisys are strategic partners, incorporating VMware's technology into their x86 virtualisation platforms. The support of such heavy-hitters underpins Gartner's prediction of significant growth for the company over the next few years.

Virtual Deja vu

It also shows how what comes around goes around. IBM introduced virtualisation on the mainframe in 1972 in order to partition machines, and allocate resources dynamically to multiple workloads, optimising efficiency, performance - and cost. This introduced multi-tasking via the creation of multiple virtual partitions appearing as independent machines to the application and user.

UNIX vendors reinvented the technology in the late 1980s as they attempted to compete in the enterprise data centre, and then finally VMware adapted it for the x86, launching its first offering in 1999. VMware's first-generation product comprised purely the hypervisor layer, replicating what IBM had accomplished almost 30 years earlier, enabling multiple applications, sometimes based on different operating systems by then, to be consolidated on an x86 server. The difference was that, for the first time, virtualisation could be achieved on commodity hardware, making it possible to consolidate multiple x86 servers on a single larger machine without having to migrate to another operating system.

VMware then evolved virtualisation into its second generation, introducing its VMotion software, allowing virtual machines to be moved dynamically between physical servers while applications are running. Effectively this emulated the 'fail over' capabilities provided by Microsoft with its clustering technology, but integrated into the hypervisor so that resources across multiple servers could be apportioned to different applications as efficiently as had been possible before only on one server.

"We are now taking that forward to the third generation with true management and automation of the data centre, and increasingly the desktop where we have our virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)," says Lewis Gee, VMware's vice president for the EMEA northern region. "VDI allows desktops to be hosted on virtual machines running on one or more servers."

Third generation

VMware's third generation sets the stall for emerging confrontation in the x86 virtualisation arena, where success will depend on having the best tools for managing the increasingly complex infrastructures, according to Andi Mann, research director of IT analyst and consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates. On this count, maintains Mann, VMware will have to move quickly to broaden its management portfolio to match the new contenders.

"As the hypervisor rapidly becomes a commodity, and is built into every operating system available, VMware will face extreme pressure on pricing and management functionality, and at least to date has not shown that it will be able to keep up," Mann says.

"While VMware concentrates on virtualisation, the others are lifting the message. Microsoft will soon have a complete virtual operating stack, from the operating system through application streaming, virtual presentation, and a complete management layer; Citrix has a complete virtual application delivery infrastructure, providing application access in any use case, from the server to the desktop, with management tools to support it; while Oracle has a complete virtual application environment too, including the OS, hypervisor, database, and applications."

Yet Gee insists that VMware still enjoys a considerable lead in the actual virtualisation capabilities themselves, with the ability to run virtual machines across multiple servers and different operating environments. Gee emphasises VMware's operating system agnosticism, enabling enterprises to adopt virtualisation without becoming locked into a major vendor. Mann has some sympathy, pointing out that major vendors will attempt to exploit the complex software licensing issues raised by virtualisation to entrench their positions in major accounts.

"Application vendors look to protect their revenues and all they seem to know are outdated models," Mann says. "Look at Oracle for example - it does not certify on virtual systems, and more recently tries to lock out the biggest and best virtualisation vendors by only certifying its database and applications on its own operating system/virtualisation combination (Unbreakable Linux + Oracle VM)."

VMware also hopes to exploit one big promise of virtualisation - the ability to deliver complete application suites over the Web as software appliances, and is working on this front with major vendors such as SAP.

"There is the opportunity for independent software vendors (ISVs) to develop a cut-down operating system pre-configured with their application on top, and deliver as a whole running system, almost as a file," says Gee. The application would then plug into the hypervisor via the operating system, with the advantage that the latter can be tuned specifically for the software it is coupled with, while being embraced within a common virtualisation management framework.

Indeed, Gee agrees that success in the virtualisation arena will depend on having effective tools for managing performance, security and resource allocation, insisting that VMware had various initiatives to take the lead on these counts. One of these involves collaborating with Intel and AMD to make microprocessors "virtualisation aware" with potential benefits in performance, reliability and security.

"In the past, if VMware sat on top of a piece of hardware, we've had to con the hardware into thinking this is a full server sat in isolation on that machine," argues Gee. "But with AMD and Intel making chips aware that there is a virtual machine on top, some interactions with the I/O can become more effective and improve performance."

To be sure, Microsoft and the others will also be working with AMD and Intel, as well as the major ISVs, so the message really is that VMware is doing very nicely at the moment, but faces the biggest challenge in its history to maintain the current dominance now that x86 virtualisation is too important for the big players to ignore. Much will depend on keeping the faith of its major strategic partners such as IBM.

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