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Open source waits for a Xen moment in 2006

What's with Xen? The open source virtualization app has fueled hype, but some question if it has the stomach to go against VMware, et al. Read on to see how it can.

In the past month, there's been much ado about Xen in the online community, both from developers, columnists and the audience at large.

First Xen was given the green light to become an open source killer app, thanks to the work done by companies like XenSource with its XenOptimizer 3.0 upgrade.

Meanwhile, some users and analysts said the technology was unproven and had a ways to go before the killer app label would fit. .

Xen, for the unfamiliar, is a virtual machine monitor for x86 that allows a user to run several operating systems at the same time.

So why is Xen so important, and why could it be an open source force in 2006 and beyond?

The people dismissing or touting Xen's promise need to look at Xen from both sides now, says Tony Iams, senior analyst for Rye Brook, N.Y.-based IDEAS International.

Xen, Iams said, is early in its development and will require at least until the end of 2006 to mature. At that point, it should be able to compete with established commercial virtualization products like VMware.

It's a mistake to dismiss Xen as just neat technology or compare it to entirely different applications, such as SWsoft's Virtual Private Servers, according to Iams. "I don't know anyone involved with virtualization applications who are not taking Xen seriously," he said. "Yes, Xen just shipped 3.0, but like all open source there is a specific staging process."

That process, which is familiar to any open source developer, begins as a core project that is tested by a community. If all goes according to plan -- as it will with Xen -- the project is packaged in a commercial form and sold with services and support.

"Where [Xen] is now in that life cycle is that the developers have submitted an application to the community, and now we are in the middle of the second phase where community members are starting to integrate Xen into their own offerings," Iams said.

This next stage, most importantly, will include a period when vendors Red Hat and Novell build Xen into their latest Linux releases.

"That's when [Xen] will really enter the mainstream; when normal users are adopting it, and not just the sophisticated developers who are able to install the raw technology," Iams said.

The Linux Factor

As Xen enters the mainstream, experts like Bernard Golden see its benefits extending to firms that are today constrained from making a major switch to Linux due to application unavailability.

With Xen, he said, these companies will be able to install Linux machines and then use Xen to allow Windows-only apps. "If you want to simplify your server farm, take a look at Xen," he said.

Xen will also become mainstream thanks to its no-cost/low cost nature, according to Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT senior analyst Charles King. From a practical standpoint, he said, Xen will have an immediate impact in entry level space because it is significantly lower in price than VMware.

"The [project] has ambitions, and the real question is whether or not VMware is ensconced in its leadership position in x86 virtualization at this point. It's not clear if Xen will be able to drive adoption and revenues," he said.

While King isn't predicting an immediate avalanche of Xen implementations, he does see the fact that Linux has grown at a "blistering pace" on the server as an indicator Xen will have many opportunities this year.

The ascent of Linux happened quickly once IBM, Dell and other major systems vendors got behind. Xen will also benefit from in high places. So, our sources said, Xen may not be virtualization's killer app today, but it's well on its way to fitting that handle.

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