June 22, 2009

Unwrapping Red Hat's Virtualization Beta Program

Four months after announcing its new virtualization strategy in February, Red Hat Inc. last week unveiled the beta versions of its latest virtualization-optimized enterprise Linux products.

So what will they mean for enterprise Linux users and how will Red Hat's offerings compare with similar products from VMware Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other competitors?

Gary Chen, a virtualization analyst with IDC in Framingham, MA, said that while Red Hat does have some virtualization features today in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (RHEL5), "they needed to go a lot further" to add advanced capabilities now available with products from VMware and others. And even with last week's beta announcements, Red Hat's offerings still won't be fully equal to those of VMware, he said.

"In terms of catching up with VMware, that's a pretty tall task," Chen said. "This gets them closer, but they still have a ways to go."

Today's RHEL5 includes support for the Xen open source virtualization hypervisor, while the next version of RHEL (to be called 5.4) will for the first time also include support for the Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM), which is fully integrated into the mainstream Linux kernel. Also released under the beta program is the new Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Hypervisor, which uses only KVM technology, without the inclusion of Xen. Users will be able to choose which option works best for them.

"Either way, with Xen or KVM, they needed to make advancements," Chen said of Red Hat's new beta offerings.

Such a move is important to Red Hat, he said, but at the same time, it's tricky because Red Hat is still an operating system vendor first, and a virtualization provider second. The challenge for operating system vendors such as Red Hat is that they can't afford to ignore the needs of users for features such as virtualization, so they have to adapt and include such features, even when they may have to play catch up to specialists like VMware.

For users, Xen is a mature, known quantity and has reliability and a good reputation in the user community, which makes it a good fit for the enterprise market, Chen said. "KVM still hasn't built up a reputation yet" because it is newer. "We"ll have to wait for customers to use it in production to get more reliability information."

In addition to moving to the new Linux kernel that includes KVM and offering users the choice of KVM or Xen routes to virtualization, Red Hat's new beta offerings include two new management tools to allow enterprise users to fully take advantage of all the possibilities of virtualization technologies. The new Red Hat Virtualization Manager for Servers and the new Red Hat Virtualization Manager for Desktops will bring many new features and tools for users in deploying, configuring and optimizing their virtual systems.

Those new management capabilities are critical, Chen said, because they should help fill some of the existing gaps for enterprise users. "For Red Hat, it's a big move forward for the company and for their customers. I think their previous solution wasn't up to snuff. It didn't have enough virtualization features. They were really lacking on the management side," which is now being addressed in the beta products.

"This is a very big upgrade for their users," Chen said. "Red Hat didn't previously have enough commitment for virtualization. They didn't put in the resources that they needed to. You can't really do that. Once they settled on the KVM platform, they made a really good commitment to it."

Navin Thadani, senior director of Red Hat's virtualization business, said the company will continue to support RHEL5 and its Xen users even after the new version of RHEL with integrated KVM support is released. But the new management tools in the upcoming new offerings will be key attractions for both new and existing users, providing capabilities for live migrations, high-availability and other important features for virtualized environments, he said.

"It's not that we're moving away from Xen," Thadani said. "Xen is still in RHEL5. We're going to continue to support that until the end of the life cycle for RHEL5. In the meantime, we're going to introduce KVM to those customers and we"ll encourage them to migrate. KVM is the next step in the evolution of virtualization."

Whether that means the demise of Xen in future RHEL releases is still up in the air, Thadani said. "We've not announced the full road map for RHEL 6," he said, including whether Xen will still be included. "For now, we're not going there."

The new beta program has been heavily oversubscribed, he said, with more enterprise users participating than initially expected. Thadani would not discuss the terms of the program or disclose how many beta users are enrolled in the program, which includes full Red Hat support.

While no release date has been set for the final products based on the beta program, it is expected to be sometime later this year, he said.

Analyst Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of research operations for analyst firm, The 451 Group, said Red Hat's acquisition last year of Qumranet Inc. with its KVM platform and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), made last week's related beta product announcements "absolutely predictable."

A key problem for Red Hat, though, is that the company is strengthening its core virtualization products late in the game "after a lot of organizations have already made the decision to standardize on VMware or Microsoft or Citrix (System Inc.'s) Xenserver," Kusnetzky said. "Going against the decision that's already been made (inside companies for which vendor to use) will be very difficult. That does sound to me that it's going to be a challenging road to walk."

One related opportunity for Red Hat could be with cloud computing hosting companies, which could use Red Hat's upcoming virtualization products instead of those from competing proprietary vendors, he said. "If Red Hat can convince those hosting companies ... that they could offer the same capabilities at a much lower cost because its an open source project supported by Red Hat ... they may find a home very quickly in that community. It is an opportunity because a lot of those hosting companies have been friends with Red Hat for a very long time."

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