Competition: Parallel Universe

Popular with Mac users, the Windows world is its next target.

According to Parallels CEO and Chairman Serguei Beloussov, "The main main advantage of Virtuozzo architecture is that it can achieve better manageability and, more importantly, better density."
Even though it's a 9-year-old company, Parallels (formerly SWsoft) isn't the household name in virtualization that VMware Inc., Microsoft or even Citrix Systems Inc. are. While many didn't know the name SWsoft, all IT pros worth their salt have heard of Parallels. This popular virtualization tool is the weapon of choice for hardcore Mac users, who often prefer it to Apple's own BootCamp. While BootCamp runs only Windows, Parallels runs Windows and many flavors of Linux.

Capitalizing on that popularity is a key reason the company changed its name to Parallels. But name aside, Parallels is doing some very interesting things with virtualization. It has two distinct core virtualization offerings, with two distinct technologies.

On the high end, it has an innovative product set called Virtuozzo. Both VMware and Microsoft's Hyper-V emulate the existing computer hardware, making it seem as if there's more than one actual computer, each of which runs separately. Many call this hardware virtualization. This approach can require high-end hardware as each virtual machine (VM) requires memory, disk and processing.

Originally aimed largely at services providers, Virtuozzo virtualizes or emulates the operating system kernel itself. Greg Shields, contributing editor and author of the e-book, The Shortcut Guide to Choosing the Right Virtualization Solution (Realtime Publishers, September 2007), compares this to a storage system taking a snapshot. According to Shields, this snapshot "becomes the base OS from which all its hosted virtual machines start their existence." He then explains that "the process to create a new virtual machine creates effectively an empty file whereby differences between the virtual machine's configuration and the host are stored."

Parallels CEO and Chairman Serguei Beloussov elaborates: "The main advantage of Virtuozzo architecture is that it can achieve better manageability and, more importantly, better density. It can put more workloads on the same hardware. The downside of it is that you will have to have the same operating system." That means only one OS can be virtualized per machine (no mixing and matching Linux, Windows and Unix), and all OS images must be nearly identical, often right down to the Service Pack level.

In fact, as far as software licensing goes, it's as if there's only one copy of the OS running, even if in reality a server is handling dozens or more VMs.

The upside, say experts like Shields, is not just a savings in software licenses (and the ultimate consolidation of operating systems themselves), but a dramatic increase in performance and more efficient use of server resources, as no processor time is wasted emulating hardware. And when changes such as patches are made to the host OS, these are automatically applied to the VMs.

The Services Provider Pitch
Until recently, Virtuozzo has been largely aimed at services providers, who often run a few applications on a large scale, rather than at IT, which tends to run more applications on a smaller scale.

Virtuozzo 4.0 promises greater availability, has an all-new UI and should be easier to manage. "Virtuozzo version 4 is the first version of Virtuozzo specifically packaged for the corporate market. This version has lots of features required by the corporate market to use it in large-scale deployments. It's also more stable, it has more performance and more efficiency," Beloussov explains.

Analyst firm IDC sees Virtuozzo as a route to serious consolidation. Virtuozzo "can help an organization to change the ratio of servers to administrators from an average of 20:1 in the physical world. Virtuozzo does not just consolidate servers, but ends up consolidating operating systems as well," according to a report by IDC analyst John Humphries.

A Parallel Approach
Offering a more traditional style of virtualization, Parallels has two approaches. The original technology is what the company calls a lightweight hypervisor, which works in conjunction with the host OS to control the hardware. With its upcoming Parallels Server, the company moved to support hypervisor technology -- so-called bare-metal virtualization -- that installs on the hardware directly.

Parallels Server can run more than 50 different guest server OSes (far different from Virtuozzo), including Mac servers. In fact, according to Benjamin H. Rudolph, Parallel's director of corporate communications, it's the first virtualization solution of any kind for OS X Server (note that to run OS X Server in a VM, the hypervisor must be running on Apple hardware). At the time of installation, admins have the choice of installing Parallels Server as a lightweight hypervisor or the traditional bare-metal style.

Parallels Server is in beta testing and is expected within a few months, Rudolph says. It runs on any x86 or 64-bit Windows or Linux-based server, and is aimed at small to midsize businesses, unlike Virtuozzo, which is largely an enterprise product.

Manage This
Just like with all the other platform players, the real action is in the tools that run on top of virtualization platforms. Here's where the company's Parallels Open Platform comes in. This is a series of multi-platform virtual tools including a hypervisor, desktop virtualization and automation tools.

"At this point we would rather enhance VMware-based, Microsoft-based, Linux-based and Mac-based [infrastructures]. When I say infrastructure, it sounds a bit like enterprise. But even a small consumer also has infrastructure in the form of the operating system, which is running on his PC [or Mac]. He's also doing backup, and he's also doing security and everything else," Beloussov says.

Parallels is also extending its own set of tools to manage both Virtuozzo and Parallels Server environments from one place. "Being able to manage both [types of virtualization solutions] from a single console means that we have a better management solution than anything else on the market," Rudolph explains.

The Microsoft Angle
Microsoft and Hyper-V are a big part of Parallels' future. "VMware is a very propriety platform. We can't immediately add too much value at the moment because VMware controls the spec. You can't write drivers for VMware, you cannot write system services," says Beloussov. "Everybody envisions Microsoft as an evil company, but Microsoft created the largest system of third-party developers in the world, right? You have lots of things you can write for Windows and you can sell it. Much less on VMware ... VMware is much more closed and much more controlling. So for us it's great. I think it's going to be pretty bad for VMware."

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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