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Users get more choice on virtual servers

As more alternatives emerge for server virtualisation, firms should choose virtual machine technology based on compatibility with...

EMC's recently acquired VMware subsidiary is growing rapidly owing to the success of server virtualisation, a key element of next-generation datacentre architecture which Forrester calls organic IT.

Despite early success, VMware faces challenges from Microsoft's Virtual Server and alternatives such as workload management and application virtualisation.

VMware's management product, Virtualcenter, offers automated management of virtual servers. However, firms should use systems management tools to drive Virtualcenter rather than build all the automation within it. In response to this approach and to keep up revenue growth, look to EMC to buy a datacentre automation supplier.

VMware is the market leader for x86 server virtualisation. EMC's acquisition of VMware plus its push into information lifecycle management with the acquisition of Documentum and Legato, means that EMC has staked out strong positions in two product categories that are key to successful organic IT.

VMware partners closely with EMC competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM so EMC has kept VMware an independent subsidiary for now.

VMware's server help firms cut hardware costs by virtualising servers into virtual machines. Many x86 servers contain only one application so IT staff can avoid software conflicts. Also, some suppliers will not support their applications if it shares the operating system with another.

Virtual machine software such as VMware's GSX Server and ESX Server helps by giving each application its own OS inside a virtual server and enables many virtual machines to run on one machine. The result is that firms need less hardware, but they still have to manage all of those OS instances.

VMware can manage virtual servers with Virtualcenter. Shipped last year, Virtualcenter provides a central management facility for creating, duplicating, monitoring, moving and shutting down virtual machines.

There is even a feature, Vmotion, to move a live, running virtual machine from one physical box to another with only a brief delay in service. It is image-based, so changes to images must be made manually or through a third-party configuration management product.
System management products can also be plugged into Virtualcenter's application programming interfaces. VMware built web services-based APIs into Virtualcenter so that partners such as Dell, HP and IBM can plug in their management tools. This lets firms use primary system management and monitoring tools for visibility and management of virtual machines.

VMware's technology is impressive and is doing quite well with customers; in fact VMware is predicting it will nearly double its revenues in 2004. But firms will soon have more choices for isolating finicky x86 apps and increasing hardware utilisation.

The choices will include Microsoft's Virtual Server, which is just now shipping. This version one product, built on technology acquired from Connectix, is roughly equivalent to VMware's low-end server product, VMware GSX Server, but is cheaper.

VMware's counter is that GSX Server supports Linux virtual machines, which Microsoft can handle but will not officially support. Microsoft will also not support VMware's virtualisation technology, demanding that users replicate problems directly onto hardware.

But VMware gets the last word with ESX Server and Virtualcenter, offering many high-end features absent in Microsoft's product.

Another option is workload management software. Not all applications make poor neighbours - some get along just fine. For these, workload management software lets administrators specify resource constraints and priorities for sharing among applications.

Firms use workload management features or standalone products, instead of or in combination with virtualisation.

Application virtualisation in products such as Solaris 10 and Softricity can also isolate applications. Softricity's Softgrid lets desktop users isolate applications from one another without having to manage two copies of the OS. Sun is touting N1 Grid Containers in Solaris 10, with a release date this autumn, which isolates applications from one another.

Intel's Vanderpool technology will virtualise processors in 2006. High-end Unix hardware has offered hardware-based server virtualisation for years, but at the Autumn 2003 Intel Developer Forum, Intel announced the Vanderpool project which will offer hardware-based virtualisation.

One year later, Intel president Paul Otellini said Vanderpool will work with Microsoft's next operating system, Longhorn, due out in 2006.

Firms should focus on building a virtual machine management strategy, not a selection. Server virtualisation is becoming a competitive market and the alternatives will become stronger over the next three years. Firms should choose virtual machine technology based on compatibility with their management software.

People using Microsoft's systems management tools for overall management should tilt toward Virtual Server - unless they really want VMware's broader capabilities. Users of leading management products from suppliers such as BMC, Computer Associates, HP and IBM should check for support of VMware Virtualcenter's APIs.

Additionally, users will need to drive VMware Virtualcenter via system management tools. Users that implement Virtualcenter should use it as a conduit for management and control by their systems management supplier. Users should limit use of automation inside Virtualcenter to things that can only be done to reduce the fragmentation of management.

Forrester recommends that businesses push EMC and VMware to offer a long-term vision. Nine months without an update on VMware's future plans is too long. If you are an EMC customer, use your influence to ask for clarification on where VMware is going and how it will build on EMC's strengths.

EMC's plans for the datacentre

EMC has a chance to be a datacentre automation player. As firms shift focus from implementing server virtualisation to automatically managing virtual machines as part of a datacentre automation strategy, VMware's current strengths will fade in importance. 

To extend VMware's initial success, EMC should deliver a VMware roadmap and make Virtualcenter the manager of all virtual machines, not just VMware's. 

To extend Virtualcenter's usefulness and avoid fragmentation of virtual machine management, VMware should add support for managing Microsoft virtual machines. This removes an incentive for customers to buy or use Microsoft's management tools.  

EMC should enable Microsoft to manage VMware virtual machines on par with Virtual Server. This means building a Microsoft operations manager pack. Advanced VMware management capabilities would still require Virtualcenter.  

EMC should also build on Virtualcenter by buying technology to add datacentre automation. Many firms are installing Virtualcenter to manage their virtual machines - probably more firms than are implementing early forms of datacentre automation from suppliers such as Opsware and Veritas.  

This installed base of Virtualcenter customers should be the core of a VMware strategy to become a datacentre automation player. To grow its datacentre automation portfolio, EMC should buy Altiris for lifecycle management and Sychron for policy-based automation.

Frank Gillet is a principal analyst at Forrester Research

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