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VMWare's Virtual Appliance Showroom

Perhaps the easiest way to evaluate Linux and other open source applications is by running them on top of Microsoft Windows. Virtually.

There's no mess and no installation, and you can still run Windows in the background. And there are hundreds of applications to choose from. All for free.

Think all this comes from an open source vendor? Think again. It's all thanks to VMware.

"The thinking was that enterprise software is becoming increasingly complex, and 25 to 30 percent of the time is spent configuring software for evals or for production use, and that's just a waste of our time," Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of product management, told internetnews.com.

"What if we could enable ISVs to preinstall on a virtual machine and just distribute that?"

Last June, VMware launched the VMTN Virtual Appliances Directory with just six virtual appliances. And now, just over a year later, the number has skyrocketed to over 300.

Want to run the latest version of Ubuntu Linux or maybe try out the Debian/Solaris hybrid Nexanta?

It's all in the VMTN Virtual Appliances Directory.

The jump from 6 to 300 virtual machines didn't occur gradually. There was a flash point.

"What turned the corner with the virtual appliances and them taking off was the release of the VMware player," Krishnamurti said.

The free VMware player was launched in December and provides a run-time environment for running virtual machines.

It can't create virtual machines but if you get a virtual machine you can run it.

"Once we launched the player, we noticed that the community at large started creating interesting appliances," Krishnamurti said. "And saying 'Hey VMware can you host these on VMTN?' And so we started doing that."

As part of the VMware player launch, VMware created a browser appliance that has now been downloaded 500,000 times according to Krishnamurti.

The browser appliance enables a user to browse the Web within the VMware player, which means that any malware encountered is unable to affect the underlying system.

Though there are many Linux and open source virtual machines on VMTN, VMware did not specifically target that space.

Krishnamurti said that with open source applications, the license makes them free. ISVs tend to tweak them, and so they just naturally gravitate toward a Linux strategy.

There are also many non-open source applications on VMTN.

Krishnamurti explained that some security vendors are now actually selling virtual appliances in addition to physical ones.

On the Linux and open source side of things though, the availability of free software from Linux appliance vendor rPath has helped the creation of the virtual machines.

Users of rPath Builder can freely build VMware images of open source applications that will play on the VMware player.

Krishnamurti noted that rPath was one of the first vendors to take advantage of the VMware virtual machine disk format specification, which became freely available in April.

Rpath has taken the spec and now writes code with it that spits out a VMware virtual machine.

Beyond just making it easier for those that may want to demo a Linux distro or run a secure virtual browser, virtual appliances may well serve to change the software distribution paradigm.

"It seems like such a waste of time when all you get is a stack of CDs and an install doc and then have a customer install it," Krishnamurti said.

"Time to value is important for both vendors, and customers and virtual appliances solve that problem pretty well."