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By | Ashlee Vance 11th September 2007 22:38

VMware's 'Calista Flockhart' hypervisor may or may not change the world

Thin, bony and mean

VMworld This piece on VMware's new ESX 3i hypervisor arrives with great sadness. How – we wonder – could our dear readers at VMware, IBM, HP, Dell, Sun Microsystems and others have kept this technology a secret? Why did we get little more than hints here and there?

We can hear it now.

"Play your violin somewhere else, hack. Type something useful instead of whining."

Such a position would be acceptable if ESX 3i wasn't a big deal.

Technically speaking, the software really isn't much to look at – in fact, it's a lot less to look at. Today's ESX Server install eats through more than 2GB because VMware includes a bulky Service Console with its hypervisor. That Service Console is really a modified version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and handles a wide variety of management tasks.

With ESX Server 3i, announced this week, VMware throws out the Service Console in favor of just the 32MB hypervisor. The new version of ESX Server will ship later this year and work with VMware's existing management packages. In addition, it will ship pre-loaded in the flash memory of servers from the likes of Dell, IBM, HP and Fujistu-Siemens. (Tsk, tsk, readers. Tsk, tsk.)

By embedding the hypervisor into server memory, VMware and friends can eliminate much of the initial, manual configuration work. In addition, they're able – potentially – to improve security by minimizing the state of the launch system and keeping it cordoned off from writable disk.

Olivier Cremel, an engineer at VMware, characterized the construction of ESX Server 3i – in alpha since April, tsk – as "quite easy."

VMware removed its own agents from the Service Console, translated them and ported them to run as native applications on the vmkernel. It also crafted a new CIM (Common Information Model) interface for third party agents, giving them access to information on things such as fan speed or component temperatures.

In addition, VMware introduced a Direct Control User Interface (DCUI), which is a text-based interface that looks a heck of a lot like a BIOS. "This console is intended for very limited configuration of a machine in case you do not like the default settings or if you have some troubleshooting you need to do," Cremel said here at the VMworld conference, during a session.

So, really, you're meant to become more dependent on VMware's other, for profit management software.

The OEM Question

As far as we can tell, major OEMs look set to offer, say, one server each with the hypervisor embedded in flash memory. They'll probably do the same with XenSource when its embedded hypervisor is all polished. Dell has vowed to go diskless with its Veso appliance based on ESX 3i, while other vendors have yet to provide much detail on their upcoming hardware.

Microsoft tells us that doing the embedded hypervisor thing is a waste of time and has no plans to decouple its future hypervisor from Windows Server 2008, even though the hypervisor itself will come in at less than 1MB.

So, then, is ESX Server 3i really a big deal?

Well, yes, and curse you for staying so silent.

On the most basic level, VMware can use ESX Server 3i to shut up its loudest critics in the financial markets. The large investors have long wondered if VMware could keep its revenue going in the face of free hypervisor competition from XenSource and Microsoft. VMware is bravely saying that it could care less about the hypervisor's financial value. You give the sucker away and then do your best to sell management software around it. (VMware already makes 80 per cent of its revenue away from direct hypervisor sales.)

Better than that, you remove management basics from the hypervisor and force customers upstream. Gravy!

ESX Server 3i also seems like a big deal because VMware has moved ahead of the competition. The major OEMs have started to standardize on its embedded hypervisor, leaving XenSource to fight for a place at the table and Microsoft to tell everyone how wrong embedded hypervisors are. This reinforces VMware's status as an industry standard.

So, on the one hand, the embedded hypervisor means very little. It's just a slimmer bit of software that fits into the same, basic framework. The server vendors will experiment with how they use the code and the types of systems they ship. We doubt anything too dramatic or VMware-specific will arrive out of this work. And, in the end, you still need to run an operating system with this puppy at some point, which leaves Microsoft in decent shape.

That said, VMware can point to ESX Server 3i as another example of its power and focus. The software maker managed to line up all the major server players around the new code. In addition, it turned out the project in just a few months – something Microsoft can only imagine.

And now, customers will come to think of virtualization software – Vmware in particular – as a standard part of a server. You just turn it on and buy your support contract. Best of all, they're likely to buy even more gear now that the basic management bits and bobs have vanished.

Keep the revenue coming. (And the tips, damnit!) ®

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