Microsoft Increases Presence In Virtual OS Space

Software giant casts spotlight on this little-known segment

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Microsoft's purchase of Connectix has brought attention to the previously little-known space of virtual operating system software products. The products, which also include offerings from VMware and SW-Soft, allow users to mix and match various operating systems running on a single machine. That's a useful method to consolidate servers, to test products on new operating systems prior to a full-blown migration, or to separate applications into their own protected spaces for better reliability without having to add additional hardware. Whatever the reason, using virtual machine technology is a bonanza for the savvy VAR.

"Intel servers are the most under-utilized asset in a company," says Michael Mullany, senior director of product management at VMware. "CPU speeds have gone into the stratosphere but software consumption of resources hasn't been able to keep up." Charlotte, NC-based National Gypsum, a customer of both VMware's workstation product as well as the high-end ESX Server environment, tells a common tale. On top of the rackmount servers that ran the basic Web operations for its customer sites, the company needed stand-alone boxes for a myriad of mapping, security, print, and application servers.

"We were accumulating over time a large number of Compaq pizza-box servers, and if you wanted to have a production environment and mirrored test environment, you doubled the number of servers," says Mike Brannon, senior manager of Internet technologies. "In the first three years of our e-commerce group, we found these little servers multiplying like rabbits." By bringing four multi-CPU servers and VMware ESX Server (a special version that runs on a dedicated microkernel rather than Windows or Linux) into play, National Gypsum moved several dozen servers into virtual environments and Brannon was able to end the life of nearly 30 1U boxes when their leases came up.

The Redmond giant recently announced that they will acquire Connectix product line for OS/2, Windows and Macintosh and integrate them into their own product portfolios. Connectix will continue to sell their products for the next six months.

There are other, more subtle benefits to consolidating stand-alone boxes into large, high-end servers, such as better redundancy and hot-swap hardware support. Virtual environments also score high on disaster recovery charts, because all virtual machines run the same emulated hardware, eliminating the chance of driver conflict if an image must be moved to a different machine. "The virtual machine is encapsulated in a single file, so you can just copy the file to a remote location and when you're ready to restore it, copy it back to any server that can run [the virtual machine host]," says Mullany.

Although the basic concept of every virtual machine platform is the same -- make one machine act as many, in a fully protected environment by reallocating its CPU, RAM, and I/O,the approaches are all slightly different. VMware offers a mid-range product known as GSX Server which uses Windows or Linux as a host operating system, rather than the dedicated microkernel of ESX. VMware recently revamped GSX in version 2.5 to vastly improve its CPU utilization (GSX is now approved for use on Unisys 32-way boxes), support up to 64 gigabytes of RAM and 64 concurrent virtual machines, and supports Netware as a virtual machine OS in addition to the current slate of Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD distributions.

Connectix also has a beta version of its VIrtual Server, which uses a Windows 2000 base to support multiple configurations of Windows, Linux, OS/2 or Unix.

SW-Soft's Virtuozzo is somewhat different. rather than picking and choosing "guest" operating systems, it partitions the kernel of the host operating system (currently limited to just Linux or FreeBSD) into "virtual environments," somewhat limiting the range of applications that can be migrated but making it an ideal choice for Web and database-heavy server projects.

Independent contractor Jerry Collins says that deploying virtual servers (in this case VMware GSX) kept a project for an e-commerce service provider streamlined, rather than resulting in a tangle of dozens of new rack-mount machines. "[The project] was a lot of instantaneous deployments of simple servers that they needed to do a function or two [in isolation,]" he says. "On just a current server with two processors, we could run from six to eight [virtual] servers with no issues, doing all kinds of things."

He estimates that the client saved at least $100,000 on hardware alone on the project. "They're paying $8,000-$10,000 a pop, and we were putting five to eight servers on those, so that adds up to a lot of money real fast."

As appealing as migrating those single-purpose boxes to a virtual platform may be, the same finicky support organizations that demand the software be run in isolation may have a difficult time fully accepting a virtual machine as a legitimate, certified server platform. "Some of the application vendors are very hard on certifications, and it takes a while to get [new technologies] ingrained," says Doug Oathout, director of xSeries marketing at IBM, a VMware ESX partner. "It takes the customer going and requesting support, and generally the ISV will give that support." For instance, he notes that he had to do a couple of weeks of work within the IBM organization to guarantee DB2 support for a customer migrating a database to a VMware platform.

"So far we've not had anybody really push back on us completely, but we have had people say on a couple of occasions that if we really get into a sticky wicket, they don't have [VMware] in their labs," says Brannon.

Past the server, virtual machines are also growing in popularity on the desktop level, keeping aging Win 9x or NT4 applications running on modern desktops without dealing with a code port or forcing IT organizations to get into the application hosting business. Both VMware and Connectix compete in this space as well, with Connectix's flagship Macintosh product Virtual PC having made the transition to the Windows world.

"When you put Great Plains parts on a machine and Best on a machine, they don't always play well together," says Ben Vollmer, solution consultant for Irving, TX-based ePartners Inc., a VMware Workstation customer. Rather than use consulting hours to constantly uninstall and rebuild the right demo environment for the proper client, ePartners evaluated a variety of virtualization tactics, choosing VMware Workstation and centrally-defined and approved disk images for each product environment. The machine spec was a bit different than the standard issue notebook consultants were accustomed to but he says the initiative has paid off handsomely. "It's an abnormality to have a gigabyte of RAM in a laptop, but if I were to do this again, I would skimp on the processor and buy more RAM."

Of course, saving money on hardware integration isn't free. As of GSX Server 2.5, VMware charges on a per-processor model, starting at $2500 for two CPUs. Reports indicate that Connectix will sell Virtual Server for $2000, plus $1000 per additional processor. SW-Soft uses a more complex pricing strategy.

There is a potential downside to elegantly preserving old applications for old operating systems on shiny new hardware. "There are applications written for NT that will never transition to 2000, so customers use this virtualization so that they don't have to go back and open up that code," says IBM's Oathout. While virtual machine integrators often say their customers use virtualization as a six to 18-month stopgap in a phase-out process, human nature and responsible budgeting would support leaving in place what is not broken until another Y2K-like rush to obliterate legacy code is upon us. To console that future generation of CIOs who may find themselves pulling their hair out over 15-year old NT4 fossils, Oathout jestingly recommends telling them, "It's their base pay program."

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