July 23, 2002

Virtual Linux use gains momentum with Web hosts, ISPs

Author: JT Smith

-By Anne Zieger -

When IBM announced that some zSeries users could run hundreds of Linux instances on its mainframes, tech buyers were interested, but few could afford the hardware needed to test the new capability.
Recently, however, a growing list of commercial technologies have emerged making it possible to power up multiple Linux copies on an ordinary Intel box, including products from SWsoft, VMware and Idaya. Open Source efforts -- notably the User-mode Linux Kernel project -- also offer technologies that create virtual, self-contained Linux versions.

Vendors believe that the ability to run OS copies in parallel will soon be a standard way of doing business for Web hosting and Internet service providers. In most cases, commercial software vendors are bundling multi-OS support with basic ISP management platforms handling core functions such as billing, authentication and server management.

Hosting companies are gradually beginning to kick off products based on these virtual OS approaches, using them to offer dedicated-style Linux hosting and to consolidate Linux systems with other operating systems in data centers.

ASPs, ISPs and other alphabet-soup service providers believe they can reach new markets with "virtual private servers," Linux instances offering root access and control without the need for a dedicated box. Companies like South San Francisco-based SWsoft, for example, allow users to run as many as 50 copies of Linux on one box. "We've tested it with about 2,000 [copies] on one server, but if users go above 50 the resources on the physical server tend to be constrained," says Craig Oda, vice president of business development for SWsoft.

This approach is especially popular with smaller hosting providers, such AWorldWideMall.com Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Until recently, AWorldWideMall.com offered a "developer" option to shared hosting customers, using SSH access as a secure connection method. The problem was, SSH-based tinkering often had a catastrophic effect on servers, says Andreas Barth, CEO of AWorldWideMall.com. "What happened was that after a year and a half, the server was destroyed," he says. "When too many people tweak around on a server, installing and configuring stuff, it's like beating on a car."

In response to this problem, Barth recently spent $12K to pick up three copies of SWsoft's HSPComplete. Each HSPComplete copy runs on a Dell Grade Five server with a one gigahertz processor over Red Hat Linux. "Now everyone gets a virtual environment, which means his or her own world," Barth says. "They can do whatever they want to do. If they drop an atomic bomb on it, it's fine, because it's their own server."

Also attacking the market for Linux-copy based service is UK-based Idaya, whose ProVSD Web hosting product offers service providers the ability to sell multiple copies of Linux. Unlike SWsoft, the Idaya system gives customers "admin" access rather than true root access to their virtual private servers, but customers can reconfigure and restart services on their own virtual machine. [A 30-day trial version of ProVSD is available at http://www.idaya.com/products/provsd/trial.phtml.]

Meanwhile, high-end business-oriented hosting players -- and enterprises themselves -- are looking at ways to bring big, sprawling applications running over multiple platforms into one cozy locale.

VMware, for example, offers a range of servers allowing companies to run a variety of operating systems in parallel. Its customers have deployed a wide range of systems, including various flavors of Linux, FreeBSD, Windows NT and Windows 2000. VMware's customers are largely drawn from the ranks of the Global 2000 list and government, including Citibank, Lockheed Martin, Visa International, the U.S. Census Bureau and the IRS.

The company's GSX server, aimed at departmental administration, allows IT staffers to run four OSes per CPU. The ESX server bumps up the ante, allowing customers to run as many as eight operating systems per CPU.

VMware's customers are using this multi-OS capability primarily to eliminate server creep -- to bring applications into one more-manageable location. "Most of the time when applications like Siebel or PeopleSoft get complicated, you need multiple servers," says Michael Mullany, director of product management with Palo Alto, California-based VMware. "With [our products] you can take all of those servers and offer them on a single system."

While VMware's customers are not focused primarily on Linux, they say that's on the way. VMware user Agilera, for example, uses the technology to consolidate AS400, Unix and Windows systems, but expects to add Linux relatively soon.

Agilera, an ASP based in Englewood, Colorado, sells access to complex enterprise software from corporate mainstays like PeopleSoft, Lawson and JD Edwards. Given the interest players like JD Edwards have shown, Linux consolidation may very well be next, says systems engineer Neil Reamer. "We are just not quite there yet," Reamer says.

In the future, hosting and service providers will find that they have even more options. Consolidating applications through virtual OS use becoming increasingly more important to major hardware and software players, including IBM, Dell, and Sun.

At the same time, technology users are gaining access to increasingly powerful computers, a trend that can only help to boost the number of virtual OS copies the systems can run. On the one end, there's IBM, pushing down the cost of an entry-level zSeries mainframe as hard as possible, while pitching Linux servers and virtualization technology. On the other end, commodity boxes are getting more muscular; in particular, parallel OS capabilities should get a boost as platform vendors migrate to the Intel 64-bit chip.

Even if nothing changes on the vendor front, however, service providers say they have plenty of reason to make co-housed copies of Linux a part of their daily routine. Getting customers out of their hair -- letting them do their own thing without having to supervise -- is benefit enough. "Managing shared hosting was becoming a bit needy on my time," says Todd Robinson, president of Penguix, a service provider based in Tampa, Florida. "But now I have the ability to generate these virtual servers with very little interaction from me. The customer can do it for themselves."


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