Red Hat Gets Serious about Virtualization

Friday Sep 26th 2008 by Jeff Vance
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As the battle for the emerging virtualization market heats up, vendors offer fundamentally different approaches.

When Red Hat acquired the virtualization startup Qumranet in early September, it announced its intention to challenge the virtualization status quo.

According to IDC, the virtualization market is on target to expand to $11.7 billion by 2011. VMware is the acknowledged leader in the space, with analysts giving it anywhere from a 55% to 85% market share. (The virtualization market is notoriously tough to pin down. Major vendors give away free but limited licenses as a marketing ploy. Microsoft has its so-called virtualization tax . And then there is the slicing and dicing of server virtualization versus other virtualization – including storage, virtualization-related services and the expanding, albeit at a glacial pace, desktop virtualization sector. Sometimes the figures include all segments, sometimes not.)

Suffice it to say that before the Qumranet acquisition, Red Hat was rarely mentioned as a serious virtualization player. That all changed with the acquisition. “From Red Hat’s perspective, this is a good fit both philosophically and strategically,” said John Madden, research director of the analysis firm Ovum. Qumranet brings two main products to the table: its hypervisor, KVM, and its desktop virtualization solution, SolidICE.

“KVM is open source and SolidICE gives Red Hat a more complete end-to-end virtualization portfolio,” Madden added.

Sources within Red Hat pretty much agree with Madden’s assessment. “We purchased Qumranet for three reasons,” said Scott Crenshaw, Red Hat’s VP of the Platform Business Unit. “One, we want to ensure that virtualization technology remains open source. Two, Qumranet’s product portfolio and team will help us accelerate time to market, and, three, we’re looking ahead to desktop virtualization, and SolidICE is a great VDI [Virtual Desktop Infrastructure].”

While VMware still dominates this nascent market, Red Hat sees the real competition coming from Microsoft and is positioning itself as the open-source alternative to Hyper-V. Red Hat claims that with the acquisition it can deliver a comprehensive solution integrated with the operating system, while virtualization-only vendors cannot.

“It’s a philosophical war as much as anything else,” Madden said. “You have the bare-metal hypervisor approach, represented by VMware, versus the OS-dependent approach, favored by Microsoft. [And now Red Hat.] It’s hardware versus software.”

Much of the OS-dependent approach is premised on the idea that the hypervisor is quickly becoming a commodity. The opposing view, expressed in a recent conversation by VMware’s Senior Product Marketing Manager, Leena Joshi, is that it’s not the hypervisor, but the operating system, that is becoming a commodity.

Does it really matter whether one or the other is a commodity? Probably not. Both efforts seek to compress and optimize one of the key layers (be it hypervisor or OS) that bridges pools of hardware resources at the lowest level and applications/services at the highest.

The goal is the same, but how to get there is in dispute. End users won’t care one whit about how resources are optimized and services delivered, of course. What they’ll care about is performance and cost.

According to Red Hat, going the open-source, link-to-the-OS route helps ensure the highest performance and flexibility at the lowest cost.

“When you’re creating virtualization, you’re essentially building a new operating system,” Crenshaw said. “You have to do all the things that operating systems do. You have to run applications, be compatible with hardware, manage and abstract resources like memory, I/O and so forth.”

Crenshaw pointed to KVM as an advantage from that standpoint, since it is included in the mainline Linux kernel.

“KVM is not a separate module; it’s part of the operating system,” he said. “What this means is that when we optimize for security, scalability, performance, or compatibility with new hardware platforms, we do the optimization once and it works across all types of servers, be they physical or virtual servers.”

It’s a compelling argument, but with KVM being open source, it’s not a proprietary competitive advantage. If Red Hat’s vision plays out, expect to see others in the space start building on the hard work done by Qumranet and Red Hat.

This supports the argument that the virtualization fight is moving away from the hypervisor. “The real battleground for virtualization, whether its server, desktop or storage, will be with management capabilities,” Madden said.

“We respect VMware’s lead in this early stage of virtualization,” Red Hat’s Crenshaw said. “They’ve done a good job consolidating relatively simple workloads, but only about 10% of the world’s servers have been virtualized.”

Red Hat contends that having success with the low hanging fruit, such as file and print servers, doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the challenges of virtualizing a CRM or ERP database. There, the Red Hat argument goes, the tight integration with operating systems will be critical.

“We have an ecosystem in place that we can leverage for virtualization. We already have thousands of applications that are written and drawn on RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux], and we have the broadest base of supported hardware configurations.” Crenshaw said. “To get good performance, scalability and security, you have to tune virtualization to the operating system. Otherwise, if you try to run something like Oracle on top of your virtualization layer, performance will slow and it will stop scaling as you add CPUs.”

The ability to size environments correctly, optimize them, handle bottlenecks and deliver consistently high performance will be where customers are won and lost – eventually. Today, everything is still about cost. Microsoft has already tried to peg VMware as an overly expensive solution. Don’t be surprised if Red Hat gets in on that game too.

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