What are we to make of Sun Microsystems' virtualization effort?
In the positives camp, we have a major vendor trying to build a real competitor to VMware. That's probably a good thing for the virtualization market since the likes of HP, IBM and Dell appear content to more or less do what VMware, Citrix and Microsoft tell them.
Sun's xVM OpsCenter management software and upcoming xVM Server (hypervisor) should certainly appeal to the company's own customers. As you would expect, Sun has placed more emphasis than any other vendor on turning the virtualization code for the Solaris operating system. In addition, Sun has followed through with the open source push around a Xen hypervisor base and plans to work with all of the major operating platforms including Windows, Linux, VMware, Xen and Hyper-V.
While this all sounds helpful enough, we're struck by how late Sun is to the mainstream virtualization program.
Sun once looked like an early mover with virtualization software. It bought Terraspring way back in 2002, gaining access to virtualization-like code for managing software across hardware manufactured by any vendor. In addition, Sun has long been able to slice up its Unix servers into partitions and offered Containers as one form of virtualization for running many applications on top of a single copy of Solaris.
Here we are in 2008, and the Terraspring wares, once meant to function as the centerpiece of Sun's N1 vision, have disappeared. (Many of the former Terraspring workers have left Sun for other projects.) Meanwhile, Containers remains as a nice although limited play.
Topping everything off, Sun has only just started working with VMware in a meaningful way, leaving it well behind the other major server makers.
"We are in catch up mode," Mike Wookey, a distinguished engineer at Sun, told us.
How Sun - the closest thing to a pure play server vendor out of all the biggies - manages to fall into catch-up mode around things as massive as blade servers and virtualization is beyond us. Consider it an unfortunate eccentricity tied to "thinking different."
Let's have a look at where catch-up mode takes us.
The xVM OpsCenter software that Sun will actually let you touch today grew out of work for high performance computing (HPC) customers. Sun needed a way to manage operating systems and software across hundreds or even thousands of servers. It also wanted a way to add hardware to a large cluster configuration without disrupting ongoing operations.
Apparently, some clued-in person realized Sun could push this software farther with some more work and apply it to a broad set of systems management tasks.
So, with xVM OpsCenter, customers get a package that can look out over a network to identify hardware, report on exactly what types of systems are found and what firmware they're running. You can then arrange the hardware into various groups and monitor things such as CPU usage, memory capacity and system load.
Flying the eco-warrior flag, Sun also offers up a tool for powering up servers and then shutting them down. "We'll have greater control in future releases over throttling that power so we can put CPUs into different power states and migrate applications off a server to shut them down when it makes sense," Wookey said.
On the software front, xVM OpsCenter ships with a variety of modules for tasks such as installing OSes and firmware on machines and applying patches. Sun brags that it can accomplish most of the major tasks remotely and in parallel. So, if customers like, they can throw out a firmware patch across 50 boxes with the click of a button and, of course, select those boxes they don't want patched for various reasons.
So far, you're probably thinking that xVM OpsCenter sounds an awful lot like the basic server management tools provided by a number of large vendors and start-ups. And you're right.
Sun, however, thinks it has a couple of unique things to flaunt.
While Sun's virtualization play is centered around VMware's VMDK (virtual machine disk format) instead of Microsoft's VHD (virtual hard disk) format, the company claims very close ties to Redmond. For example, Sun and Microsoft will support each others' systems even when they're running virtualized code. Microsoft does not afford VMware the same courtesy, although it does have a solid working relationship with Citrix.
Then, there are some additional bobs in xVM Server, which should ship in June.
You would think Sun could turn around a Xen-based hypervisor in short order, but we're told these things take time. "The candid analysis is that we want to release something that is stable and solid," Wookey said.
The Server product will have its own management interface and APIs for setting up basic virtualization jobs. Once a customer has created virtual systems, it can pull those into OpsCenter via Sun's take on an Apple Bonjour-like service discovery tool.
Sun has also equipped xVM Server with ties to the ZFS file system and networking technology called "Crossbow" that lets admins control things such as bandwidth over the virtual NICs of individual guests and virtual MAC address tagging. (There's more on Crossbow here.)
Even with all of this put together, Sun admits that there's much work to be done once the two core platforms are released. The company may well turn to partners for help filling specific gaps.
"We are not being arrogant and thinking we can build everything by ourselves," Wookey said. "Storage management is a classic one where we might have to look at partnering."
Instead of being late to the virtualization game, Sun could have done a massive partnership long ago. It seems that Egenera's PAN Manager, for example, accomplishes many of the tasks handled by OpsCenter. Dell likes Egenera's software enough to sell it instead of building homegrown code. On the core virtualization front, HP, Dell and IBM have done just fine by partnership with VMware and now Citrix.
An even bolder move might have been the acquisition of SWsoft/Parallels. Few people realize that Parallels exists as the second largest virtualization software seller: the company has both containers and hypervisor plays, which fits right into Sun's strategy.
Without making such a buy, Sun needs to take care of the Solaris base first and foremost and wants to make sure that its software can dig into some of Solaris's fancier features. So, that's why we find it in a very Microsoft-like state of following the leaders.
When xVM Server ships in June, Sun plans to release a second version of OpsCenter that's "much more than just a point upgrade."
It sounds like customers are just dabbling with the technology so far, and we'd love to hear any early reviews. ®