Virtualization startup focuses on SMP, management

IT giants made virtualization a household name this year and newer companies have been eager to get in on the action. Intel-backed startup Virtual Iron is one of the latest companies to get involved, and it says being a latecomer has its advantages.

Virtual Iron Software Inc. is offering a new take on virtualization. According to analysts, a new high performance capability and a focus on management may give virtualization startup Virtual Iron a technology edge, but the company faces a tough and crowded market.

Industry experts believe virtualization -- software that allows IT organizations to provision hardware into platform-agnostic pools of processing and storage capacity -- will be built into every layer of IT within the next five years. Carving up servers into virtual pools of resources will become less and less important and virtualization management tools will become the differentiating value for IT.

Lowell-Mass.-based Virtual Iron is betting that its emphasis on infrastructure management and ability to tie multiple x86 servers into a symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) virtual machine are going to help it stand out in a crowded field of virtualization newcomers.

"VMware started seven years ago, emulating Windows and carving Microsoft machines into partitions. They used it to carve up file servers and print servers," said Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron. "We started five years later, and we looked at the problem differently. We looked at all of the data center resources, servers, storage and network. We focused on production class applications, data warehousing, high performance computing -- the applications that run people's businesses."

Virtual Iron's differentiating technology is the ability to tie x86 servers together with InfiniBand connections to scale into a high performance computing image.

Virtualization company and EMC subsidiary VMware said Virtual Iron's ability to create a single, large virtual machine spanning many physical systems is competitive with grid technologies, and not VMware's offerings. VMware called the InfiniBand high-speed connections expensive, and said deploying multiple virtual machines on underutilized x86-based servers is more representative of the majority of the data center market.

On the other hand, Gordon Haff, senior analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata, argues that Virtual Iron's capability is to aggregate multiple systems into a single virtual server may help it stand out in the virtualization crowd.

"This is a benefit for the types of applications that might run well in a clustered environment, but aren't necessarily clusterware -- software that can run parallel processing well, but wasn't specifically written to run that way," Haff said.

Daniel Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at research firm IDC, agrees. The product "is a combination of virtual machine software capabilities, plus that of a single system image clustering manager. It can run multiple containers, each containing a single operating environment, plus the necessary supported software, on a virtual [non-uniform memory access] SMP machine that's really up to 16 physical systems linked together by InfiniBand," Kusnetzky said.

Haff said high performance clustering capability isn't the company's only noteworthy feature. He said the Virtual Iron has modified its focus from virtualization capabilities to infrastructure management, and that will also help it stand out.

Haff noticed the shift in the startup's message from the time of its official launch in February 2005 to its announcement last August regarding Xen, an open source virtualization project. The company recently announced it would provide complementary management tools for the barebones, open source hypervisor.

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"Base level hypervisors are going to be built into operating systems," Haff said. "You're going to see base-level virtualization built into the major operating systems within the next five years, even at the chip level from Intel and AMD [Advanced Micro Devices]. It's not going to be about splitting up servers. It's going to be management of infrastructure."

And that is where Virtual Iron is early to the market, according to Haff. But it's getting a little crowded in the virtual pool. The market is already saturated by the usual suspects. IBM, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are all involved to some extent, and the 800 lb. gorilla VMware has practically defined the term over the past year.

"Obviously, [Virtual Iron] is a startup in a space where a lot of people are playing. I'm not about to predict that they're going to take the market by storm. On the other hand, they have some unique capabilities that they can build into a broader market," Haff said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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