Xen Hypervisor: The Future of Enterprise IT?

Despite considerable interest in the open source virtualization tool, Xen Hypervisor faces an uphill battle in gaining market share.
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At what point does a “standardized” solution become “the industry standard”?

Simon Crosby, CTO at XenSource, has begun calling Xen the “de facto standard” hypervisor for virtualization—despite the fact that enterprise-ready Xen solutions have spent just months in the market and as yet have virtually no market share.

Those with less monetary interest in its success don’t call Xen the standard, but do admit that it has a good chance for widespread adoption. Gartner analyst George Weiss says that while Xen “looks good,” it’s a little bit “presumptuous” for vendors to tout it as the standard at this point.

In the next year or two, Xen proponents will have the opportunity to prove its worth as enterprises begin more widespread adoption of virtualization.

Virtualization 101

At its simplest, virtualization allows users to run more than one operating system on one machine. “Virtual infrastructure is better than real,” notes Alex Vasilevsky, VP and CTO at Virtual Iron. “You can do some truly amazing things on it.” Those amazing things include improving resource allocation, live migration of applications from one server to another, and offering developers a safer environment for debugging and testing new products.

While not all virtualization solutions work in the same way, the vast majority rely on a thin piece of software known as a hypervisor. The hypervisor sits on top of the primary operating system and allocates resources to the guest operating systems. Vendors XenSource and Virtual Iron use the open-source Xen hypervisor, while Microsoft and market leader VMWare developed their own hypervisors.

Currently, a very small percentage of the enterprise data center is virtualized—somewhere between five and ten percent of x86 servers, depending on which survey you read. Few enterprises have invested in virtualization because the previously available solutions (primarily VMWare) imposed a high performance toll and used costly, privately licensed technology. Xen solutions are both faster and less expensive, but they require modifications to the guest OS source code—something that Microsoft, for one, has been reluctant to allow.

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Changes on the Horizon

However, all that is changing with the introduction of the Intel VT-x technology and AMD’s soon-to-be-launched Pacifica chips. These new processors integrate virtualization capabilities directly into the hardware. The new chips do not provide any benefit for VMWare, but they do improve performance for Xen-based solutions and eliminate the need to alter OS code.

“Today virtualization is slow and expensive,” notes Virtual Iron’s Vasilevsky. “Slow is fixed by Xen and the new chips. Virtual Iron addresses the expensive.”

While experts disagree on how quickly enterprises will rush to adopt virtualization, nearly everyone believes that the new chips will speed deployment. Having an industry-standard hypervisor could further speed the growth of the market and move the focus to virtualization management products. “Eventually the talk about which hypervisor is best will die off, and the talk will be about which management tools are the best," predicts Vasilevsky.

XenSource’s Crosby adds, “Once the hypervisor is a given, we can get into much more interesting development.”

Gartner’s Weiss also sees standardization as the wave of the future, pointing to the recent announcement by Novell and Microsoft as an example. “There is already a recognition that it is senseless to continue to battle each other where standards could grow the market,” he says.

Next page: Bumps Ahead

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