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New Virtualization in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.4

What are the barriers to making virtualization pervasive in the enterprise?

That's a question that Linux vendor Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) is aiming to address with today's release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) version 5.4 -- the first deliverable in the company's new enterprise virtualization effort that revolves around the open source KVM hypervisor.

With RHEL 5.4, Red Hat is now including KVM as the basis for enterprise virtualization, though it is still supporting the Xen hypervisor that debuted with the release of RHEL 5 in 2007.

As a result, Red Hat isn't abandoning Xen, but it isn't betting the future of Linux virtualization on it, either. Instead, Red Hat believes its future is with KVM -- and with the RHEL 5.4 release, the company is aiming to get enterprise customers to start thinking similarly.

"We're committed to [Xen] -- RHEL 5 has a ten-year lifecycle around it so there is a huge amount of crossover for this transition to occur," Red Hat CTO Brian Steven said during a press conference today. "One way of performing the crossover was to have waited on KVM and put it in RHEL 6, but the readiness of KVM was such that it is ready now to put it into production in datacenters and cloud deployment, and we didn't want to wait on KVM."

The move to KVM is one that Red Hat has been talking about for much of 2009. In February, Red Hat first outlined its KVM strategy, built in part on the acquisition of KVM vendor Qumranet in September 2008.

With KVM, which is a technology that is part of the mainline Linux kernel, Red Hat said it expects enhanced performance and opportunities to push virtualization into the mainstream.

"From a readiness point of view, there are workloads around networks where we are seeing a 40 percent improvement in network performance with KVM RHEL 5.4 over Xen," Stevens said.

Embracing KVM

The new RHEL release is the first part of a wider effort that uses KVM as the basis for Red Hat's virtualization strategy. Red Hat has been beta testing RHEL 5.4 since at least July of this year. The company is also testing out a standalone KVM virtualization solution called the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Hypervisor and management solutions for both virtual servers and desktops.

Navin Thadani, senior director for Red Hat's virtualization business, said during the press conference that Red Hat has been testing its new virtualization solutions with over 100 global customers. Those customers have been running both virtual Red Hat Linux guests as well as Microsoft Windows guests and running a variety of mission-critical enterprise applications including SAP and Oracle.

Thadani noted that because KVM is part of the Linux kernel, all ISVs that are certified for RHEL are also certified for deployment on KVM.

While RHEL 5.4 is now available, the virtualization management solutions are not scheduled for release until later this year. Thadani noted that the offerings will offer live migration, high availability and system scheduling tools as well as monitoring and reporting capabilities.

Though Red Hat's virtualization management tools are not yet available, Red Hat still sees value in enterprises moving to KVM now.

"Many cloud providers today are building their infrastructure with Red Hat and many are using their own custom tools to manage our infrastructure," Red Hat executive vice president Paul Cormier said. "Getting them to move to the next-gen hypervisor, if they so choose, is part of us seeding the ecosystem. We're about choice with this. We're not trying to bring you into a locked in bubble."