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Xen virtualization quickly becoming open source 'killer app'

As 2005 approaches its conclusion, it would appear that virtualization's time in the open source spotlight is all but here.

As the end of the year approaches, it appears that virtualization's time in the open source spotlight has all but come.

Whether it is because of the machinations of companies like Palo Alto, Calif.-based XenSource Inc. or analyst endorsement, emulating an enterprise-class infrastructure environment using open source has been on the rise in 2005. And, now, it looks ready to burst next year.

"[Virtualization] was once relegated to high-end mainframe environments, but virtualized deployments are now available across every level of IT, most notably in the x86-based solutions that constitute the largest volume of server sales," said Pund-IT Research principal analyst Charles King.

The Hayward, Calif.-based King added that as a result of this inevitable rush of widespread deployment, virtualization qualifies as the second hottest sector of the server market just behind Linux.

This period of hot growth was buoyed last week when XenSource announced the release of Xen 3.0, which the company said was specifically targeted at enterprise infrastructure virtualization needs.

Xen 3.0 is the first major release of Xen since the October 2004 release of Xen 2.0, which saw significant deployment in ASP, retail, hosting and development and testing environments. The 3.0 release delivers a feature set needed by large enterprises seeking to adopt virtualization in the data center, to realize the benefits of increased server utilization, server consolidation, servers and no-downtime maintenance.

Xen 3.0 release has several key components that advocates of Linux and open source software (OSS) find appealing, including support for up to 32-way SMP virtualized guests and the ability to hot plug CPUs to ensure the most efficient use of resources.

The rise of OSS virtualization has caught the eye of CEO of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) Stuart Cohen, who noted that the rise of Linux means virtualization will become a key requirement in enterprises that had adopted open source technologies.

King agreed and said that virtualized infrastructure, like Linux, will help businesses realize better performance from their servers.

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"Like Linux, virtualization runs across and adds value to a broad array of server and workstation platforms," King said. "However, while most vendors developed virtualization as an enhancement to proprietary servers, the situation changed with VMware in 1999.

With VMware, the initial goal of bringing mainframe-class virtualization to industry standard servers was naively utopian. But it resulted in VMware being ideally positioned to catch the wave of x86 sales that have driven the server market during the past half decade.

The challenges and rewards of open source virtualization

XenSource, one of the key markers in the development of open source virtualization technologies, now finds itself in a situation that is as challenging as it is rewarding.

Launched earlier this year by members of the Xen Project, XenSource focused its business model on building services and solutions based on the company's freely distributed hypervisor, which is licensed under the GNU GPL and supported by Red Hat and SuSE Linux.

"With impeccable open source credentials, XenSource is positioning itself to become the VMware of the Linux world, and the company's latest improvements should ease the process," King said.

However, the competitive field already occupied by proprietary virtualization firms is a challenging one full of vendors like VMware Inc., SWsoft Inc. and Scalent Systems Inc.

IBM has also continued to progress in this space as it attempts to build its own virtualization technology. IBM started the process when it shipped Virtualization Engine 2.0 earlier this year.

The Microsoft factor

With Microsoft Windows operating system already controlling a huge share of the server market, the opportunity for Xen rests in an expanding but still relatively small market segment.

"To grow, Xen will either have to battle or displace VMware, no easy task on the best of days. VMware did not succeed through good fortune alone, but by intelligently creating new market opportunities and shaping users' notions about virtualization," King said.

Virtualization has Intel inside

Even in light of this intense competition, however, it would appear that the efforts of the XenSource crew have caught the eye of several large-scale vendors, including chip maker Intel.

"[Xen 3.0] will deliver the benefits of Intel's hardware virtualization to both client and server markets from the get-go," said Doug Fisher, general manager of the core software division at Intel. "Virtualization will be a killer application for all aspects of the enterprise -- driving improved security, reliability and manageability."

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