Profile: VKernel and the Economics of Virtualization

One company aims to measure virtualization's effect on the bottom line.

Alex Bakman is a key player in the Windows community. The founder of Ecora Software Corp., Bakman spends countless hours talking to customers and developers. A longtime entrepreneur, Bakman kept hearing about the next big thing -- and it was virtualization. So Bakman gave up his CEO role at Ecora, and last year founded VKernel Corp. in Portsmouth, N.H.

The aim? Build a complete management platform for virtual infrastructures, starting with VMware. VKernel's first aim was to bring some old-style concepts of shared computing to the new world of virtualization. Mainframes shops have long tracked usage by department, and charged back these groups for their fair share of mainframe time.

Virtualization is a form of shared computing, but without understanding who's using what, it's impossible to determine if the investments are worthwhile, or usage patterns fair.

"Now that we've tried distributed computing for about 20 years and have felt the pain of managing 1,000-plus small servers, the world has decided the mainframe concept was not so bad after all!" Bakman wrote on his Web site. "So here were are again shifting from lots of dedicated servers back to big machines with lots of memory, fast SAN storage and network. Call it what you like, I call it a mainframe built around the x86 architecture."

In the Beginning
Bakman looked around the market, and saw what he calls a "perfect storm" swirling around virtualization. The first storm element is the exploding market. The second factor is that the systems management arena in general is ruled by products too complex to easily install and use. The answer, he feels, is virtual appliances that offer only the functions the user actually needs.

"Everyone's going to be changing out systems management tools because of virtualization," Bakman believes.

So Bakman bet his company on the concept of small virtual applications with a minimal GUI that solve specific problems. VKernel appliances are small, with plug-and-play ease of installation. In fact, they aren't actually installed at all -- they just run on the target machine, because they're virtual machines (VMs) themselves.

"We're using virtualization itself to deliver technology, to just give them the features they need. You download, plug it in, and it works," Bakman notes.

Andi Mann, research director for Enterprise Management Associates Inc. in Boulder, Colo., recently researched what drives buying decisions for data center software. The top two factors by far? Ease of use and ease of deployment. Mann asked about hardware appliances, and even with those there were concerns. Physical appliances can be troublesome because of hardware standards and policies, IT pros told Mann.

Enter the VM appliance, of which Mann is a fan. "They're easy to move around, and easy to scale up," Mann maintains.

First in Line
First out of the blocks was the VKernel Chargeback appliance. It tracks what resources each VM uses and which groups use that VM. Costs can then be generated based on processor, storage or network use. Reports can be sent to departments detailing this use, and allocating costs.

The tool has default values for usage, but IT can customize these chargeback calculations. And the graphical Capacity Availability Maps feature shows where there's excess capacity, so constrained VMs can be redeployed.

By using these maps, hardware can be properly utilized; that leads to instant green computing.

Money to Grow

Early this year VKernel Corp. picked up $4.6 million in venture funding, which it will spend on sales, marketing and development. More interesting is that Mitch Kertzman, of Hummer Winblad Ventures, joins the VKernel board.

Haven't heard of Kertzman? He only founded Powersoft Corp., which was acquired by Sybase Inc. He then ran Sybase as chairman and CEO. Oh, that Kertzman!



And Now ...
The company's latest tool is Capacity Analyzer. Virtual infrastructures are prone to bottlenecks, as you're often putting multiple VMs on a single device originally built for one OS. I/O-intensive apps are the biggest culprits, which is why they tend to be the last ones virtualized.

Capacity Analyzer discovers your VMs and associated resources -- resource pools, clusters, hosts and so on -- then tracks the way ESX VMs use the network, and the key hardware elements like CPU, RAM and storage. The data can be used for day-to-day reallocation of resources as well as long-range planning. But the most immediate use is for spotting bottlenecks before they become critical. Alerts can be sent when pre-set thresholds, such as exceeding capacity or too-fast growth in resource usage, are exceeded.

VKernel now bundles both Chargeback and Capacity Analyzer as the VKernel Virtual Appliance Management Suite. Not just a bundling deal, both tools use the same SQL Server or Oracle database.

With these tools, IT doesn't have to guess as much about total cost of ownership or return on investment.

Currently, VKernel tools support VMware, but they're built so they can work with any hypervisor.

"The app itself is a VM; it doesn't care what hypervisor it runs on," Bakman explains.

That includes Hyper-V, which is very much in VKernel's future. "I'm convinced that when Hyper-V gets out, it will get a lot of organizations moving quickly toward virtualization," Bakman believes. VMware is also still pretty expensive, giving Hyper-V a chance to commoditize and expand the market.

The appliance model could turn companies like VKernel into publishing concerns, where they sell appliances created by developers, and even IT pros.


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