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Xen founders tackle Windows virtualization

Matt Stansberry
Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup XenSource Inc. today unveiled its new commercial offering, open source virtualization software, which has the ability to run on Windows machines.

The product, dubbed XenEnterprise, was created by the development team of the open source hypervisor Xen. If beta testing is successful, this will be the first official product from the Xen founders, though not the first attempt.

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Check out the rest of today's four-part series on virtualization:

VM market on fire with software giveaways

Virtual Iron adds Xen, aims for rival VMware  

VMware on free specs, virtualization's boost for Linux  

The company announced a product last December called XenOptimizer but has since scrapped that project to repackage it as XenEnterprise.

According to XenSource chief technology officer, Simon Crosby, the XenOptimizer was dropped because beta testers wanted a product that could run on Windows -- a function unavailable when the product was first announced.

Xen uses a type of virtualization called paravirtualization, which means that the host operating system needs to be modified in order for the software to work. This meant Windows was off limits.

But now, Xen can virtualize Windows through hardware virtualization provided by Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD). Intel is currently shipping its Intel VT technology and AMD is scheduled to begin shipping virtualization enhanced chips later this year.

According to Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International Ltd., the hardware loophole doesn't work as well as a paravirtualized environment, but at least it gets Xen in the door.

XenSource has also licensed Microsoft's virtual hard disk to ensure interoperability with Windows virtualization environments.

Microsoft said customers with premier-level support agreements running Windows within XenEnterprise,or other nonMicrosoft virtualization software, can look to Microsoft for "commercially reasonable efforts to resolve interoperability issues."

Back to the drawing board

Beyond Windows, Crosby said he learned a lot about what data center managers are looking for from the failed launch of his first virtualization product. "Large data center customers don't want an overarching management suite [from XenSource]. They'd rather use their existing management applications. Also, Fortune 100 companies want to consume Xen from big companies like Red Hat [Inc.] or Novell [Inc.]."

To that end, XenSource has partnered with Linux distributors to help include Xen in the next versions of its premium Linux operating systems. Novell is going to roll out Xen in its newest OS release in July. Red Hat is doing the same at the end of the year.

So where does that leave XenSource? The company will position itself as a standalone, independent distributor of Xen with a focus on the Windows shops that want to use Xen's capabilities. "There's probably no Windows person on the planet that would buy [Red Hat Enterprise Linux] to virtualize a server," Crosby said.

XenEnterprise is currently available in beta form, with product availability scheduled for summer 2006. The Intel hardware is already out there, but it's currently disabled. Iams said the whole enchilada of virtual hardware and software won't be really ready until 2007 -- factoring the x86 hardware refresh cycle.

In the mean time, data center pros should be kicking the tires and paying attention. EMC subsidiary VMware Inc. is a much more established player. Iams said, "they're the safe choice."

But Xen has some potential performance advantages and shops that are heavily invested in Linux should watch because it's already going to be included in the operating system soon.

"Virtualization is a fundamental shift. It's sinking in that this will transform the way you deploy your infrastructure, and it's like a land grab," Iams said.

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


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