January 15, 2007

Talking virtualization with rPath

Author: Bruce Byfield

Brett Adams, vice president of development at rPath, sees 2007 as a pivotal year for virtualization. When you are looking at the future of virtualization, few companies are as well positioned to make observations as rPath. Billing itself as the "software appliance company," rPath was one of the first companies to focus on virtual appliances and simplifying their production.

"It's not entirely clear whether we're going to see it gaining momentum in the first half of the year," Adams says, "But I think by the latter half of 2007, the virtual appliance concept will have taken root. That's based on [rPath's] conversations with various industry participants, and also on looking at what some of the other industry analysts are saying. But it's a little unclear still in what form."

Adams also sees the arrival of Microsoft into the market place, increased acceptance of virtualization in the open source community, and an increasing concern with how to manage virtual appliances as they become more widely used.

The company is "absolutely not" interested in developing its own virtualization platform, says Adams, since there are already "significant market forces" in the field. Instead, rPath is committed to supporting all platforms. The company already supports VMware and XenSource, and plans to support Microsoft's Virtual Hard Disk shortly.

Like Network Engines with its managed hardware appliances, rPath's goal is to become what Adams calls "an invisible provider" to independent software vendors that is largely unknown to end-users. "Our goal is to become the Switzerland of virtualization," Adams says, meaning a company that favors no single platform and whose technology can be used by all of them. This neutrality makes rPath an impartial observer in a way that few can match.

Virtual appliances

Looking back on the previous year, Adams views virtualization as a technology in the early stages of adoption. In order for virtualization to become more widely used, developers need to find "a solution to a mainstream problem that can be attacked in a conservative way." -- in other words, a way to use the technology to solve a pressing problem.

In the past, that solution has been "server consolidation," or the focus on fewer, more powerful machines with a virtual layer, at least for VMware. However, in coming months, Adams sees virtual appliances coming into their own.

"Virtualization makes it easier to consume software," Adam says. "It simplifies installation dramatically, and if you do a virtual appliance that is maintainable and updatable, then customers become less and less consumed with IT issues, and more concerned with whether they're getting business value."

To a certain extent, this trend is already underway. "VMware's move to introduce a virtual application marketplace, to actually start trying to have virtual appliances for sale, surprised us," Adams says. "We didn't think it would happen quite so early." However, he is uncertain whether to categorize VMware's move as an experiment or an aggressive move to be first to market in a new field.

Either way, he sees VMware's marketplace and its release of the free VMware player as helping to introduce virtualization to a broader audience and as planting the idea that the technology is about more than helping to reduce the number of machines. As a result of this example, Adams expects to see an increasing number of vendors turning to virtual appliances, initially as a way to provide demos of their products.

The arrival of Microsoft

Microsoft is arriving late to virtualization, as it often does to a new technology. In 2006, Microsoft announced cooperative development with XenSource, and introduced its Test Drive program, with four sample appliances. Adams describes these developments as "good tactical moves."

However, he adds that Microsoft "is probably not going to be shipping production ready stuff until later in 2007," which will probably be somewhat behind its competitors like VMware.

Yet, in the long run, Adams thinks that this delay is unlikely to be significant. "We need to be cognizant of the fact that an enormous amount of software runs on the Microsoft platforms," Adams says. "So being late to the party is by no means a serious issue for Microsoft -- as long as they do deliver something that is comparable to the competitions'. We believe that they'll be a player, and for that reason we're already starting to talk about how we can support their format and how people can use our appliances with the Microsoft server platform."

Open source virtualization

At the same time that Microsoft's emergence in the virtualization market is likely to signal greater commercial competition, Adams also sees a continued strong open source presence, pointing to rPath's own growing catalogue of free and open source software (FOSS) virtual appliances. He admits, though, that rPath's view of the importance of FOSS may be due to its own "open source pedigree" -- a reference to the large number of Red Hat pioneers in the company, including founders Erik Troan, Michael K. Johnson, and Matt Wilson.

Adams credits XenSource, the main FOSS player in virtualization, as a key player in developing the market. "It's done a great thing in in convincing the conservative-minded that there are alternatives," Adams says. "When VMware was pretty much the only show in town, it was much easier for a conservative buyer to say, 'Well, wait and see. We'll see what momentum it has in the market. Xen provided a credible alternative." In doing so, Adams adds, Xen "has done a lot to increase grass root developer awareness."

As part of its own business strategy, rPath makes its rBuilder Online tool available to FOSS projects. Adams says that about half of the active projects that use rBuilder already produce virtual versions of their software. Some, like various VOIP projects do not, because they are concerned with the timing of specific hardware, but Adams hopes that more will explore the possibility of virtualization in 2007.

"We've actually been doing some outreach to our developer community, saying, 'Hey, we've made it so easy to produce virtual applications, maybe it's time you should do that,'" Adams says. He sees virtualization as a major tool in "taming the complexity of Linux" for end-users, and making it easier to manage for system administrators.

Emerging trends

As the idea of virtual appliances starts to take hold in both proprietary and FOSS development, rPath is already trying to anticipate what comes next.

Currently, the performance cost of a virtual layer is holding back adoption, but Adams sees this handicap as being removed by the end of 2007. Although the increased hardware requirements of Vista, the new release of Windows, will help eliminate the problem, Adams sees most of the improvement coming from improvement and innovation in virtualization technologies themselves. He expects these improvements to be aided by cooperation between different platforms, as well as by increased support from hardware vendors, for whom the decoupling of software from hardware removes many of the traditional concerns about drivers and memory requirements.

Another trend that Adams expects to become clearer by the end of 2007 is a concern about how to manage virtual applications. As virtual applications come into wider use, Adams suggests, "the normal cycle of supply and demand will actually result in everyone consuming more software." If that happens, then the question becomes, "What sort of characteristics does a virtual appliance need to be more maintainable, more manageable?"

Traditionally, software vendors have assumed that management of their products is the customers' concerns. However, as virtualization takes hold, Adams expects to see vendors as starting to offer managed services. "One of our hypotheses about what virtual appliances can do is freeing the end user from worrying about the IT stack, operating system, and other issues, because they're essentially black box and having the software provide all that, which shifts responsibility and control" Adams says. "Now, [if that happens] you have to ask: 'If I were a software vendor, what would I need?'"

Adams concedes that embedded systems may play a role in virtualization some day. For 2007, though, he says, "I think the game is mostly going to be on the traditional enterprise side of the fence. Much of the activity will be squeezing out the objections, so that it just becomes a no-brainer to use virtualization.

"2007 is going to be a very interesting year," he concludes.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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