Linux server OS to have virtualization capabilities

Novell will begin shipping the server version of its SUSE Linux operating system with the option to install virtualization technology from Virtual Iron Software, the two companies announced Monday.

Users of Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 9 and the upcoming Version 10 will be able to modify the SUSE kernel to allow a machine to run multiple "guest" operating systems. That is a coup for start-up Virtual Iron, which claims that its paravirtualization technology is faster than software emulators from companies such as market leader VMware Inc. -- though it requires users to make changes to the operating system and run the company's hypervisor software.

Virtual Iron's chief rival, XenSource, still has an advantage because the processor tweaks needed to run its Xen hypervisor come installed with versions of Linux from Novell and Red Hat. Xen will also be built into the kernels of SUSE Enterprise Linux Server 10 and Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5, both of which are due out this year.

Both of those operating systems will also bundle the free Xen 3.0 hypervisor software, which allows for the creation of multiple virtual machines on a single piece of hardware. Virtual Iron's hypervisor, meanwhile, is not being bundled with SLES, though it can be purchased through Virtual Iron or its partners.

Lowell, Mass.-based Virtual Iron, which claims six unnamed enterprise customers, is betting that improved distribution combined with features absent from competitors will attract enterprise customers. Virtual Iron not only runs multiple virtual machines on a single box but can grow that virtual machine on demand to run on several boxes at once in a cluster or gridlike fashion, all connected via InfiniBand.

Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron, said the technology means applications don't have to be rewritten as they are moved to new machines -- perfect for J2EE applications that have spiky, peaky workloads.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, believes that cluster computing, once restricted to universities and government labs, is gaining currency among businesses. "The grid idea of getting a maximum return from your IT investments, especially in the economic environment of the last couple of years, makes more and more sense," he said.

But Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., said that the rapidly falling prices of multiprocessor x86 servers make clusters less interesting, especially because Virtual Iron clusters would likely suffer from memory bottlenecks that would hurt their performance.

"History suggests you can mitigate long latencies, but you can't change the laws of physics," Haff said. As a result, it's questionable how broadly useful that particular capability will be. And if you take that away, Virtual Iron is a relatively late entrant to a space with a lot of players.

Brian Stevens, chief technology officer at Red Hat, which is not working with Virtual Iron, agreed. "We have seen no traction for CPU aggregation technology such as Virtual Iron's within our customer base," he said.

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