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Ready or not, IBM and Novell will back Xen

IBM and Novell said Monday they will back Xen, the open source virtualization technology. But experts are wondering if Xen is ready to deliver.

IBM and Novell Inc. are throwing their considerable weight behind Xen, the open source virtualization hypervisor, but some experts are suggesting that these companies may be pushing this nascent technology too far too fast.

IBM said today it will support Xen as part of its Virtualization Engine portfolio on its Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Opteron processor-based server and blade systems. In addition, Xen will be added to the IBM middleware portfolio. Big Blue will also offer service and support for Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 across its entire hardware and software portfolio.

This move is just the latest involving Xen, which has received considerable attention from a number of sources. Earlier this month, Sun Microsystems Inc. pledged Xen support for the Solaris 10 operating system. Earlier this year, Red Hat Inc. said it would include the Xen hypervisor with its latest commercial Linux offering as part of an "integrated virtualization" effort.

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., commented on the aggressive promotion of Xen, particularly in the wake of IBM's significant endorsement. Haff, and others, are not convinced that Xen is ready for mass promotion.

"We all see the potential [of Xen] and I don't think anyone is disputing that; and certainly virtualization as a whole is important," Haff said. "But everything I have seen suggests that this is not the sort of production-ready data center technology they are making it out to be."

Indeed, this promotion might be a disservice to Xen, given the technology's relative immaturity when compared to production-ready alternatives like VMware. Citing personal experience, Haff said he was worried that a user could install Xen, have it crash, and be disenchanted with the technology when it didn't live up to the hype.

"The stated purpose of these enterprise Linux releases [like Novell SUSE Enterprise 10] is for it to be a rock-steady production, with commercial Unix-like reliability, and Xen doesn't seem to be at that point yet," he said. "It is not that people should not kick the tires, but both Red Hat and Novell have community support editions of Linux precisely for that purpose."

Other analysts agreed that Xen could use more baking time. "Xen is something that for the most part requires either a great deal of in-house expertise to utilize it now or is something that requires the gentle administration of the ISVs or service partners," said Charles King, principal analyst of Pund-IT Research Inc., in Hayward, Calif.

For those who believe in open source development, said King, Xen will eventually be the way to go. Today, companies interested in tested commercial applications of virtual technologies and easy-to-use products that get the most out of their x86 servers are likely to go with market leader VMware, he added.

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Even Red Hat, Novell's competitor, maintains some distance from Xen. Executives there walk a fine line between supporting the technology publicly and keeping some distance as they wait and see how Xen matures.

At the Red Hat Summit, held in June, Red Hat's vice president of enterprise solutions Tim Yeaton lauded the Xen project and at the same time cautioned that it would not become a prominent part of his company's software until it was absolutely ready. "I think it is great technology, and it is what we have chosen to make a part of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). But we are not going to bring it to market before we are absolutely confident it is ready for production deployment," Yeaton said. "We have a diligent process in place to make it as bulletproof as possible and we think it will take us to the end of the calendar year to do that."

John Scott, a network administrator at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, is also working to make Xen as bulletproof as possible in his data center. He uses SUSE Linux 9.1 with his servers and VMware as his main virtualization technology, but he has deployed Xen 3.0 in a testing environment. "For now we're just learning Xen," he said.

The big-name vendors may do well to follow Scott's methodical approach to Xen as well, according to Haff. "Look how long it took [VMware] to evolve into a production role; how long it took IBM to develop virtualization on Power. My belief is that Novell is doing Xen a disservice by taking an enterprise-class distribution and including what amounts to an experimental early-stage product. What if someone tries it and their reaction is VMware is so much better than this?

"They could end up giving Xen a black eye," Haff said.

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