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Red Hat Bets on Startup to Shake Up Virtualization

Linux vendor Red Hat is upping the ante in the virtualization market today with the $107 million dollar cash acquisition of privately held virtualization vendor Qumranet.

The acquisition brings Qumranet's SolidICE virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) under the Red Hat banner, giving the Linux vendor a claim to end-to-end platform virtualization -- thanks to its existing role in the OS.

"This acquisition advances Red Hat's delivery of groundbreaking virtualization solutions in ways that virtualization-only vendors cannot," Paul Cormier, Red Hat's (NYSE: RHAT) executive vice president, said during a conference call discussing the deal. "Red Hat links all the components of the infrastructure including the operating system, [software] applications, virtualization management and hardware to deliver new levels of flexibility, scalability, manageability and security."

The move also marks the potential for Red Hat's decreased reliance on the open source Xen hypervisor -- although company executives argue that it's not spoiling for a hypervisor market war with industry leader VMware or with Citrix, which owns Xen's chief commercial vendor.

Instead, the acquisition would seem to aim to place Red Hat at the forefront of vendors challenging Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) for end-to-end platform virtualization.

"Modern IT organizations deploying virtualization require this breadth of coverage which Red Hat as one of only two major operating system vendors is uniquely positioned to deliver," Cormier said.

SolidICE also can run users' Windows XP or Windows 2000 virtual desktops on top of the open source Kernel Virtual Machine (KVM) Linux virtualization technology at its core.

Spokespeople for Microsoft did not return requests for comment by press time.

Taking it to the bare metal

Red Hat executives described their new combined solution as more potent than that offered by either VMware or Citrix alone -- arguing that both are limited in what they are able to do, since their solutions aren't working on what is known as a "bare-metal" hypervisor, like the KVM.

Having access to a bare-metal hypervisor has advantages over other hypervisor implementations because it runs directly on hardware without an intermediary, according to Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens.

"KVM is a bare-metal hypervisor -- it doesn't run on top of Linux. What it does is it turns the Linux kernel itself into a bare-metal hypervisor," he said. "The significance of it being a bare-metal hypervisor is that it provides really strict security isolation and full performance for guest applications in the ways that prior products that were not bare-metal hypervisors were not able to deliver."

This won't be Red Hat's first exposure to KVM technology, which has been part of the mainline Linux kernel since the Linux 2.6.20 release in 2007.

Yet Red Hat has been supporting the Xen open source effort for even longer. Xen -- whose lead commercial vendor, XenSource, was acquired last year by Citrix for $500 million -- is included in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 and has thus far been a key part of Red Hat's virtualization strategy.

In addition to Xen, Red Hat also supports VMware. With all those virtualization options available, Stevens said Red Hat still isn't taking sides.

"In terms of [a] hypervisor war, certainly our detractors will try and push that message," Stevens said, adding that Red Hat would continue to support and contribute to the Xen open source hypervisor effort while pushing forward with KVM.

"At Red Hat, the model of virtualization that we have taken is one where we believe that open source has delivered innovation and security to customers on the OS," Stevens said. "But that same model of development has not been able to impact the hypervisor in the same manner."

Red Hat also said it would work to expand the desktop virtualization technology developed by Qumranet.

"Qumranet's VDI ... technology is a natural extension to our virtualization offering," Stevens said. "It overcomes the No. 1 barrier of desktop virtualization -- a rich user experience."

Earlier this year, Red Hat launched a new effort to expand the capabilities and support for KVM with the oVirt.org effort. Stevens said the first oVirt.org release should be out by the end of the year, adding new management capabilities for KVM. With the acquisition of Qumranet, Red Hat expects to further accelerate its time to market for virtualization solutions in general.

"With this acquisition, open source solutions will deliver the demanding reliability and performance expectations of our enterprise customers while carving out cost from desktop to server," Stevens said.