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XenSource’s Simon Crosby: Virtualization, VMware, and Viridian

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There’s no doubt about it: virtualization is hot. Actually, red hot. Virtualization vendor VMware, whose IPO in August has rocketed upward, recently reported its third quarter profit tripled from a year ago. Research firm IDC forecasts that the virtualization market will double between now and 2011, to a robust $11.7 billion annually.

The breathless enthusiasm about virtualization is exemplified by Jeffries & Co. analyst Katherine Egbert, who told Marketwatch, “We also continue to believe virtualization is the next major sea change in IT infrastructure.”

Simon Crosby, XenSource CTO

XenSource CTO Simon Crosby

An emerging company at the very center of this molten sector is XenSource, acquired by Citrix for $500 million in August. The company develops both server and desktop virtualization software for Window and Linux environments. At the core of the firm’s technology is its open source Xen hypervisor.

Only in mid October 2007 did the young XenSource achieve the 1000-customer mark, yet the company is already partnering with some heavyweights. HP will sell XenServer Enterprise Edition on its servers, and Dell will offer XenCenter as an option on its x86 PowerEdge boxes.

Most important – especially in terms of competing with market leader VMware – Xen architecture will be fully compatible with Viridian, the Microsoft hypervisor scheduled to debut with Windows Server 2008.

Helping guide XenSource in this period of rapid growth is Simon Crosby, the company’s CTO and one of virtualization’s most ardent evangelists. Crosby spoke to Datamation about the future of virtualization, the company’s partnership with Microsoft, and XenSource’s competition with VMware.

Q: The XenSource applications are based on open source. In terms of the virtualization market, what are the pluses or minuses of an open source approach?

Open source is an extremely valuable tool for innovation. One of the key things about the Xen code base is that it can be delivered to market by multiple vendors, and will be.

One of the biggest challenges that the hardware vendors have had is that vendors like Microsoft take five years to get new features to market for them. But of course we have support on Day One. So the day that the first Intel VT CPU ships, we have the support. The day the hardware virtualization [launches] we have the support. So we’ve become the industry’s first and best support for an enhanced hardware experience.

And at the same time, we’ve been very anxious to make sure that Xen as an engine was open sourced, but that multiple different vendors could have economic business models built around that. So we commoditize the “engine” – it’s the code base that everyone agrees should be commoditized – and then it has much broader applicability.

So, for example, Xen runs on [certain] PDAs, and Samsung is doing work with those as a product prototype. But it also runs on supercomputers from SGI. That way, we don’t have just one ‘car’ – there’s everything from Porches to Minis. So you don’t limit its applicability.

Q: What about the relationship between the Xen hypervisor and Microsoft’s Viridian? How will that work?

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Microsoft implements the Viridian hypervisor as an add-in operating system component. The architecture of Viridian is very similar to Xen, but it is Microsoft-built – entirely.

And so the way to think about Viridian with Windows Server 2008 is pretty much like Red Hat does with Xen, or Novell does with Xen, or now Sun is doing with Xen with Solaris 10. So it’s a hypervisor included with the OS, which is basically the Xen architecture, but written by Microsoft. We have a partnership with Microsoft to make sure that Viridian interoperates with the world.

In fact, the partnership with Microsoft is extremely strong, and getting stronger. They’re important in the context of Citrix, and very important in the context of the integrated hypervisor, the embedded hypervisor, which will be shipped by Dell as of the beginning of next year.

Now, once an integrated hypervisor is part of a box, it doesn’t get installed. And you can imagine that that’s a very unnerving thing for an operating system vendor. And our intention is to make sure that it isn’t unnerving. So the plug-compatibility statement to Microsoft is that, basically, virtual machines created in that world will simply run in Viridian.

So the Microsoft partnership is actually very profound for us, and indeed we view Viridian as a valid implementation of the hypervisor, so all of our dynamic virtualization services components will run on top of Viridian.

The way to think about this is: we can sell the heck out of our product for the next year, until Virdian shows up. But when Viridian shows up, over the year or so after that it will have a footprint probably far greater than we could ever achieve on our own.

I’m interested in number of seats served with virtualization. And the hard economics say, use that as a valid implementation of a hypervisor; the hypervisor was always free – we made it free. Leverage that through value-added products that you deliver to the customer to deliver the value proposition of virtualization.

Next page: Competing against VMWare

Q: But aren’t you also in competition with Microsoft?

Not at all – I don’t think we compete with them at all. It’s not about the hypervisor, it hasn’t been since we made Xen open source. That is, owning a hypervisor is not worth having – it’s just free. And we like to think we have the best one, right?

So the opportunity is to deliver value-added solutions to customers. And we’ll be delivering value-added solutions to customers generally, serving the Windows customer base, with value-added end-to-end solutions. We’re very happy with what Microsoft’s doing in Viridian. It’s a bit late, but that’s just Microsoft. [He chuckles.]

Simon Crosby, XenSource CTO

XenSource CTO Simon Crosby

Q: If there’s a hypothetical IT buyer out there who’s considering both VMware and XenSource, what would you say to direct them?

VMware has been a one-stop shop for everything. And their approach to the market has been pretty heavy-handed. They have not enabled an ecosystem to go to market with them. And I think that, while in the short term customers have certainly benefited from the basics of virtualization, VMware-style, in the long term it’s profoundly troubling. That is, it doesn’t give customers choice. It gives them the horrible specter of being locked in.

And our agenda is precisely the opposite. That is, to have the basics of virtual machines be commoditized, to be standardized to be a single format, and open. And we’re working very closely with Microsoft and the other major vendors to have a portable, open virtual machine format, which is now becoming a standard. And VMware has participated in the effort. So I think it’s time to move.

I think VMware has fantastic products, they have their reputation, but there’s no reason to be paying through your nose to do virtualization. We have fantastic products, and they will be delivered in a much cheaper, much more useful form factor when they’re just included with every server.

It would be reasonable to say that we as XenSource, as a small company, have the enterprise cred, and the legs to stand on. We’re a very strategic company. We now have 24/7 worldwide support, we have all of the scale, all of the resources, all of the partnerships, and all of the features that VMware has. So there’s no reason not to consider us as a platform of choice.

Q: Looking five years in the future, where do you see XenSource going?

At that point, the hypervisor is everywhere. It has to be everywhere – it’s in everything. So it’s all about how one leverages virtualization to deliver profoundly exciting or economically relevant value propositions to enterprises.

For example, I think in the mid market, hosted virtual machines will be profoundly changing things in disaster recovery. If I have my app running in my own data center, I can have a hosting provider running copies of my virtual machines that they can bring up in an instant, if my data center goes south on me. And that is simply an insurance game for the hosting provider.

I think we haven’t even begun to see all the changes that will come. There are going to be big changes in hardware from a storage perspective. The average Intel server is going to be a very, very powerful machine. And so as availability and disaster recovery becomes critical, as the number of virtual machines goes up, per physical server, the need to make sure those things are always up is going to be much more important. The platform has to become more reliable; it has to offer fault tolerance.

There’s this really valuable opportunity to explore the value proposition, which is how many nines of availability do you want for your IT infrastructure? And how many nines are you prepared to pay in dollars, right?

And we’ve never had an opportunity to really explore that curve. Fault tolerance until now has been high-end hardware from a few vendors. But it can be delivered as a software component on standard hardware from Dell, in the near term. It’s going to be very interesting to see how that affects what the mid market can do with their enterprise IT infrastructure.

Then, agility is a key. The ability to separate software from hardware, and to reduce the total number of images that I have to manage, through smart storage that is aware of virtualization. [The ability to] dynamically combine the operating systems with streamed applications and personalities, so now I have only, say, one Windows image to manage and patch, but I have thousands or hundreds of thousands of clients, or thousands of virtual machines in my data center.

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That changes the whole management of the software stack because it reduces the complexity for the IT guy in terms of managing operating systems. And that’s very, very interesting to me.

Q: Virtualization offers business considerable cost saving, yet only a small percentage of businesses have yet adopted it. Why has adoption move at such a modest pace?

It’s very interesting. I think price is one. Our aim is to be around 30 percent of where VMware is in price right now. The other has been performance. VMware has had a higher overhead than us. We do better than them in terms of performance, we’re much lighter in terms of overhead.

Then I think there is this issue: what do I virtualize first, how do I do it, how do I manage it, and is that a whole new IT process for me? And that is about the rate about which IT groups can acquire a new skill set.

So I think that the reason that Viridian will be important is that when virtualization is just a feature of the Windows operating system, it will also help to take virtualization mainstream. It will just be something that the IT guy who runs Windows manages to do.

So having it as this whole, extra bolt-on thing is harder. Virtualization can be part of the server: Turn on the server, instead of having one bias, it has a bunch, right? That’s the way it should be.

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