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What does the future hold for Oracle's virtualization acquisitions?

For Solaris administrators and Virtual Iron customers, Oracle's recent acquisitions mean the end of the line. But Oracle Virtual Machine users may see some major product improvements.

On May 13, Oracle announced that it had acquired privately held Virtual Iron, just three weeks and a couple days after the Sun acquisition announcement on April 20. Within a few weeks, Oracle's x86 virtualization game has turned into a triple play. So what does this mean for Virtual Iron, Sun and Oracle virtualization customers? Oracle's plans for Virtual Iron are now fairly well known, but we must wait out the quiet period before Sun xVM customers learn their fate.

Oracle's interest in Virtual Iron
Oracle initially launched its Oracle Virtual Machine (OVM) product in the fall of 2007. OVM is built on the Xen open source hypervisor code and integrated with Oracle's own custom Linux kernel and management utilities that make up the Xen service partition. The product is available for free, but Oracle sells support subscriptions for OVM. For the first year of its life, OVM saw little improvement, and uptake was slow. Recently, however, Oracle began to build out the management infrastructure for OVM, most likely in response to its poor market reception. On March 3, Oracle announced the OVM management pack for Enterprise Manager, Oracle's enterprise management console. This marked a move in the right direction for OVM -- it was made enterprise worthy. However, OVM still lacked a number of key features found in market-leading competitive offerings. These include the following:

  • Dynamic resource load balancing
  • Host server power management
  • Directory services integration
  • Scriptable management API

Oracle has made no bones about it: It is only interested in Virtual Iron for the technological features that OVM lacked. It is not interested in Virtual Iron's customer base and channel, as recently evidenced when Oracle ceased all sales of Virtual Iron and fired nearly all Virtual Iron staff. The Virtual Iron acquisition announcement strongly hinted that all Oracle was interested in was taking Virtual Iron technology and integrating it into OVM. Looking at Virtual Iron's revenues versus venture capital spend rate, this seems the obvious route for Oracle.

So what happened to Virtual Iron? Its market approach was to offer enterprise VMware-type features at a lower cost to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) through a channel of resellers. The SMB market has a hard time swallowing the VMware Virtual Infrastructure, or vSphere, price tag, so Virtual Iron offered similar features to this market. The biggest difference between Virtual Iron and VMware's products were the maturity and the support offered. Virtual Iron only offered one year of market support followed by a second year of deployment-only support (no patches or updates). SMBs often find this tradeoff palatable compared with enterprise-priced products. This combination was working well for Virtual Iron until Microsoft shipped Windows Server 2008 with Hyper-V. Adding insult to injury, Citrix recently responded with its free XenServer product.

The net result of the acquisition is that Virtual Iron is no more. The technologies are being folded into OVM and the OVM management pack for Enterprise Manager. Oracle hopes to ship the integrated product this fall -- probably in time for Oracle OpenWorld.

Can Oracle take advantage of Sun xVM?
Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems brings yet another Xen-based x86 virtualization hypervisor to the game. Sun initially released xVM in February 2008 as part of its xVM Ops Center management product. Just last month, Sun pushed the xVM development into the OpenSolaris project, a signal that it will probably go the way of all unfunded and unsupported open source projects.

Sun xVM has a unique feature that Oracle may port into OVM. XVM has the ability to understand VMware's Virtual Machine Disk Format (VMDK), allowing a user to run a VMware VM on xVM. However, loading a VMware VMDK VM image on xVM will not take advantage of any of the VMware paravirtualized device driver enhancements placed in the guest image. Sun xVM paravirtualized device drivers must be installed to improve performance of the guest.

Sun xVM will not survive the acquisition as a product, but will be available in the open source as part of the OpenSolaris project. This means it will most likely stagnate as Oracle puts its marketing and support muscle behind OVM and its associated management framework.

This is the most probable and business-wise approach for Oracle to take: Focus the virtualization product around its core offerings (the database and line-of-business applications) while taking key technologies from the acquired virtualization hypervisor technologies.

The future of Solaris Containers
Solaris also includes another form of virtualization -- operating system (OS) virtualization -- called Solaris Containers. Unlike a virtual machine hypervisor, OS virtualization occurs at the OS application programming interface and not at the hardware. Applications each see their own Solaris OS that has been virtualized on top of the one physical instance of Solaris running on the hardware. OS virtualization has been very popular among Web hosting providers, as it allows for a high level of consolidation when the applications and OS are identical.

Oracle will keep Solaris Containers as long as Solaris itself is maintained. I discussed the probable Solaris roadmap in my previous article on the Oracle-Sun acquisition.

What you should do?
If you are a Virtual Iron customer, you already knew that you had only a year of support for your product, and should have been looking for an upgrade or to move to another platform. The world today is much different than just a year ago, when there were no compelling "free" x86 hypervisors. Since that time, XenServer 5.5 has been made available for free, including XenCenter. Hyper-V is also effectively free for Windows Server customers as of September 2008.

Do not expect your reseller to begin offering OVM this fall; it appears Oracle may have shot Virtual Iron's reseller channel -- a poor move in my opinion -- allowing Microsoft and Citrix reign over the small-to-medium enterprise market.

Sun xVM customers should expect to migrate from xVM to OVM or a competitor such as Citrix XenServer. You should not expect a cut as abrupt as seen with Virtual Iron, but plan on one happening nonetheless.

Solaris Container customers should be safe in the short term. Once Oracle outlines its strategy for Solaris x86 moving forward, you can make plans. Expect long term for Oracle to move OS virtualization into Oracle Enterprise Linux as a supported solution. It is unclear if Oracle will move the open source Linux Virtuozzo code forward or port Containers to Linux. p>The bottom line
The Virtual Iron product line has ended. Customers should expect the xVM product to end in the near future as a supported product from Oracle. In both cases, customer should expect Oracle to encourage them to move to OVM. Solaris Container customers should expect to see a migration to an equivalent technology in Oracle Enterprise Linux over the long term.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Jones is vice president and service director for Data Center Strategies at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. He can be reached at

What did you think of this feature? Write to's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at

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