Virtual Iron, VMware Virtually Duke it Out


VMware has been the undisputed leader in the x86 virtualization space,
teaming up with large systems vendors to find placement among the loads of
Intel servers that companies like Dell , IBM
and HP have been selling.


But one new start-up looking to advance the notion of using software to
consolidate infrastructure in data centers has arrived this week, promising
to do virtualization on a much broader level, starting with Intel machines
running Linux.


Virtual Iron Software has created
software that can assume the processing and performance of several connected
hardware servers, which is a distinction from VMware right out of the gate.


Virtualization software allows customers to consolidate resources and move
them around where necessary, a key component of utility or on-demand
computing systems.


Virtual Distinctions and Contradictions


While virtualization software from VMware is designed to carve up a single,
x86 box into small partitions, Virtual Iron’s VFe 1.0 software
allows users to take multiple computers in a data center and use them as
“Lego-like” building blocks, or virtual computers.


Virtual Iron CTO and co-founder Scott Davis said this gives his company a
broader applicability. But Raghu Raghuram, senior
director of strategy and market development at VMware, is quick to disagree.
He questioned Virtual Iron’s ability to gain traction based on demand for
such technology on Intel-based systems.


“The proposition that you can combine two or more boxes with Virtual Iron’s
software to replace a larger box starts to become cost effective when you
are talking about applications running on large SMP servers, such as 8-ways
or 16-ways or 32-ways,” Raghuram said. “Of the five-plus million Intel servers
sold every year, only a few thousands fall into this category. We therefore
think that this is a small market opportunity.”


VMware, Raghuram said, is focused on the millions of servers running
applications that run on one-, two- and four-way servers. As multi-core processors
from Intel and AMD become the norm, tomorrow’s two-way or four-way will
itself have eight or 16 CPUs, which should boost VMware’s opportunity and
diminish Virtual Iron’s chances in the space.


But Davis argued that VMware’s market for targeting x86 machines has gotten
as good as it’s going to get despite the fact that VMware announced that its
fourth-quarter revenues for 2004 were $71 million, a 159 percent increase
year-over-year.


Davis believes the market for virtualization on multi-processor servers will
grow, citing IDC estimates that almost 65 percent of all business processing
applications or workloads continue to run on SMP-based servers.


Moreover, he said “we expect x86 server partitioning to rapidly be
commoditized by advances in Intel and AMD processors.”


While this may be speculative, there are signs that Intel and AMD are doing
more with virtualization for their chips. AMD this week announced it will
port XenSource’s Xen open-source virtualization software to its AMD64
technology. Like VMware products, the Xen hypervisor is an x86 virtual
machine that lets a single machine run multiple operating systems.


In fact, Pund-IT analyst Charles King said Xen is likely to be a greater
threat to VMware than Virtual Iron, which he said sports an approach so
different from VMware’s that Virtual Iron will more likely compete
with grid computing vendors like Platform Computing or United Devices.


Despite the opposing opinions about the market’s direction, there is a
lot of money to be made in virtualization software. IDC said
the market garnered $19.3 billion from 2003 to 2004, with about $1.5 billion
coming in the virtual processing space where Virtual Iron plays.


Virtual Iron Tech Garners Praise


At least one analyst was duly impressed with Virtual Iron’s novel approach
to complexity issues in virtualization technology that go back 30 years.


IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky said people are usually trying to find a way
to bring the application to the resources they have. Virtual Iron has
dragged the resources of a system — storage, processors and memory — to
the application.


“They saw the same problem everyone else did, which is ‘we want to somehow
aggregate the resources from a lot of inexpensive machines and in the end
produce the work that used to require a supercomputer'” Kusnetzky said.
“It’s a simple conceptual difference. But it is truly rocket science
underneath — I am absolutely certain of it.”


But Kusnetzky acknowledged that while the technology might be impressive,
the Acton, Mass.-based company of 35 employees has a ways to go to prove
itself in a market dominated by VMware.


“Their little voice is likely to be drowned out by the big voices of other
vendors,” he said. “I think that means this company is going to have to work
very rapidly to develop alliances and partnerships with these companies so
when they are presenting their message, Virtual Iron is part of their
message.”


Ironically, Kusnetzky said this is how VMware started. It aligned itself
with major server vendors and deepened or broadened those partnerships.
VMware recently extended its pact with IBM to offer VMware’s VirtualCenter,
VMotion, ESX Server and Virtual SMP software on IBM eServer xSeries and
BladeCenter systems.


“On the edges, VMware and Virtual Iron will compete with each other,” he
said. “But VMware can’t do what Virtual Iron does, which is spread resources
among number of blades or boxes connected by InfiniBand. This is not to say
VMware could not implement this, but it would probably take two to three years to implement.”

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