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Virtually Free for All in Utility Computing

In the last couple of years, utility or on-demand computing has blasted open some doors of opportunity that had been closed by weak spending from a cost-constrained IT sector. One of the ways it has done this has been through a technology called virtualization.

Once largely relegated to the storage space as a way to pool storage from several storage devices into what appears to be a single storage machine, virtualization is gaining steam. Vendors are using it to consolidate massive server workloads, shuttle applications around a network with drag-and-drop ease or just to simplify data-center management.

With such characteristics, virtualization is an obvious choice as a foundation for the on-demand or utility computing environments favored by so many of the major IT businesses these days, including IBM , HP , Sun Microsystems , VERITAS Software and Computer Associates.

Some of these companies have rolled out their own virtualization capabilities. IBM is one of the forefathers of virtualization through its mainframes, and the company is intent on making it the key perk for its POWER5-based servers. EMC's VMware unit specializes in the technology, with VERITAS and up-start Trigence nipping at its heels.

While the strategies vary from company to company, simplifying, consolidating and making more efficient and cost-effective gear in data centers is the ultimate goal. With the components, vendors hope to sell new computing architectures to customers in financial services and other vertical markets to the tune of millions of dollars of business.

Server-side Virtualization

Sageza Group Research Director Charles King said that, while virtualization is explored in storage circles, it is something that "really has to work across the entire IT infrastructure."

VMware, which EMC bought early this year for $635 million, agrees and is sitting pretty. The unit, which makes server virtualization software for Intel-based systems, earned a shade under $100 million in revenues in 2003 and expects 2004 sales in the $175 million to $200 million range. P> VMware makes virtual infrastructure software that provides a layer of abstraction between the computing, storage and networking hardware and the software that runs on it. This creates a pool of computing power that can be provisioned on the fly, capable of moving whole operating systems from machine to machine to consolidate workloads.

With it, companies can add new services and shift resources from server to server with a management console, instead of manually reconfiguring machines. This virtual infrastructure also allows software to be piped between servers without requiring reconfiguration, a solid foundation for the on-demand or utility computing infrastructure.

IBM, HP and Dell stand out among VMware's more than 5,000 customers, using software to propel their utility computing strategies on x86 workloads. VMware's coverage is heterogeneous, supporting Red Hat, SuSe, Mandrake, Windows NT, XP and Windows Server operating systems, among others.

VMware Chief Architect and co-founder Ed Bugnion is pleased with the results, but recognizes there is still work to do. He pointed to the integration of virtual infrastructure within EMC's tiered storage portfolio to underpin the company's information lifecycle management strategy.

But another key thing that would-be rivals have noted is that, though VMware technology allows easier management of fewer machines, it still requires the management of several operating systems. So while VMware is solving the problem of redundant hardware, it is creating a dilemma of redundant software.

Bugnion said this is a problem VMware's engineers are currently addressing in their labs. Not surprisingly, it is this perceived weak link that have would-be rivals VERITAS and Trigence looking to poach existing customers or win new ones.

Challengers to the Virtualization War Chest?

VMware's virtualization method is hardly the only approach, even if it is easily the most advanced to date. VERITAS purchased Ejasent, a backyard startup making application virtualization for the Solaris operating system.

Instead of trying to consolidate massive workloads of resources on servers, Ejasent's UpScale is being integrated into VERITAS Cluster Server, where it will sit above the operating system, according to Bob Maness, senior director of product marketing at VERITAS.

"That whole stack that leads to the application -- from the storage to the file, to the volumes, database, application server and server and up to the application -- is the key thing that we are trying to attack," Maness said. "Get that stack in such a way that the performance and availability of the application can be enhanced on a higher service level."

Essentially, Cluster Server clusters can be used as a pool of servers to move applications across servers as needed, enabling customers to better use the resources on their machines. This approach differs from VMware, Maness said, in that VMware software encapsulates the application within an operating system, inserting its code within the kernel.

"We believe that there is performance impact when you start to insert your code within the domain of the operating system," Maness said, noting that tests showed a 50 percent increase in application performance with the Cluster Server approach compared to VMware.

"The difference between snapshotting the way something is set up and then moving the image to another server is logically simpler to do than to create multiple instances of an OS and then strike the application across the instances and manage them," he continued.

VERITAS expects to integrate UpScale into Cluster Server with support for Solaris by 2005, with support for Linux and Microsoft Windows machines to follow, Maness said. VERITAS expects it might butt heads with VMware down the road in customer accounts, he continued. Stay-tuned.

Start-up Revs Virtualization Engine

On the other hand, start-up Trigence is in a different boat, even if it does agree with VERITAS that VMware's products might create more complexity in some cases. Like VERITAS, the outfit does application virtualization. Like VMware, it provides it for Linux, but Trigence only provides it for Red Hat software.

Trigence CEO Chuck Colford said that unlike VMware software, Trigence AE doesn't put one operating system on top of another. Instead it provides a "container" around an application to make the service portable.

"I can lift it off of one machine and move it to another physical machine in the data center very easily," Colford said, noting that this allows an IT manager to perform maintenance and upgrades. It is also hardware-agnostic, in that AE can fluidly move application bundles from one type of machine to another.

Then, Colford said, users can implement policies in the data center for failover mechanisms and either freeze it for diagnosis, reboot it or move it to another machine without intervention in case one of the server containers stops running.

Colford said Trigence AE is in testing with a customer that has a tiered architecture with BEA WebLogic and Web servers that tie into a single Oracle database.

"To move the application and reconfigure it to another server takes them from one to one-and-a-half weeks. Once we put it in a container, we can move it in seconds," he said.

The CEO claims Trigence is seeing VMware when it lobbies for customer accounts. He is convinced his company will be able to offer customers an easier way of managing applications within a data center.

"VMware's approach is very powerful for running disparate and multiple operating systems on a shared machine, but usually those machines have to be higher capacity than what customers already have," Colford said. "Also with VMware, there is no reduction to the amount of operating systems that need to be managed.

"We're finding a sweet spot in letting customers better utilize their applications on the infrastructure they already have as opposed to turning that over to high equipment," he continued.

If it doesn't pan out or Trigence enjoys wild success, Sageza's King said, it's quite possible VMware or IBM might find Trigence an appetizing morsel to add to their infrastructure menus.

Looking Forward

But let's not kid anyone. The crystallization of the value of virtualization in utility computing platforms is going to take time.

For those unsure about what value lies in virtualization, it should be noted that Microsoft is dipping its ladle in the well. The software giant is poised to unveil Virtual Server 2005, in a year or so. According to Microsoft statements, it "will be the most cost-effective virtual machine solution for Windows Server 2003 to improve operational efficiency..."

Microsoft declined to comment for this article. But VMware's Bugnion said his company expects it to compete squarely with the VMware GSX Server for mid-range enterprises.

King classified utility computing as a destination, with virtualization being one of the wheels on the car trying to get there. Citing IBM's new three-part Virtualization Engine, King said the company has been upgrading the suite one piece at a time, discreetly adding more functionality as time has gone on.

"But the problem is, when you're talking about the destination, it's almost as if you're getting a mileage report," King said. "You're heading to San Francisco and you've just passed Peoria, Ill. Isn't this great? Well, yes, but you've still got 2,000 miles to go."

Vendors and customers alike hope the destination is well worth the journey.