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Virtualization Hits the Cloud

Skytap’s Virtual Lab service lets developers subscribe to virtual machines (VMs) and provides a VM image library and a virtual lab-management app.

Virtualization has revolutionized entire sectors of the IT industry, including the arena of software testing. Unfortunately, developers don't always have ready access to virtualized resources -- the key barrier being cost. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to set up the simplest of virtualized infrastructures -- or it can be much more, depending on the scalability and capacity required.

Skytap Inc., a startup formed by veterans of Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and EMC Corp., aims to provide ad hoc virtualization to organizations that otherwise might be put off by steep hardware and infrastructure investments.

Skytap's Virtual Lab service lets developers subscribe to virtual machines (VMs) for as little as $100 per month. Hosted at Skytap's Seattle headquarters, Virtual Lab provides a pool of shared hardware and a selection of VMs, including VMware ESX and Citrix XenServer. Support for Microsoft Hyper-V is also planned.

The service provides a library of VM images and a Virtual Lab management app. Skytap is making the service available now, and the company will let customers automatically subscribe to its service this fall.

Growing Presence
One early Virtual Lab customer is Kivati Software LLC, a Bellevue, Wash.-based supplier of scripting software. The company had looked into deploying a VMware ESX virtual environment to test and rework its software, and faced an all-too-common challenge.

"The biggest problem we ran into was the astronomical cost it would have run us to build that environment," says Jack Nichols, group product manager at Kivati. "We didn't want to lay out that kind of capital to do that."

Previously known as Illumita, Skytap came out of stealth mode in April. It's funded by former Microsoft executive Brad Silverberg's Ignition Partners, as well as Madrona Venture Group Inc. The company has started stepping up its public profile, appearing at the recent VirtualizationWorld conference in New York and last month's Association for Software Testing conference in Toronto.

Virtual Lab will likely compete with the cloud-based offerings of larger players, including Microsoft's own SQL Server Data Services. The company is pitching its multivendor approach as a key differentiator.

Quote by Ian Knox

Beyond Test
Will Virtual Lab appeal to a broad universe of developers? Ian Knox, the company's director of product management, says the value of the service goes beyond eliminating large capital outlays associated with virtualized infrastructure.

According to Knox, Virtual Lab could be particularly helpful in easing the burdens of development testing and debugging activities. He says the service gives dev teams a whole new way to sleuth problems.

"What you really want is the ability to take the environment -- the whole system-when it fails, and stop it, suspend it, and check it into the library, and you can send out an e-mail to a developer that says," Here's the problem, here's the issue that happened. "Then the developer can bring their own environment up and figure out exactly what went wrong," Knox says.

The service lets .NET developers freeze an entire environment and send it to the test team using virtualized resources, Knox says. "It's incredibly powerful, the way you can manipulate machines and move them around, whereas before it was just impossible."

At Long Last, Hyper-V Ships

Microsoft's recent release of the long-promised Hyper-V virtualization component to Windows Server 2008 isn't expected to have a major impact on .NET developers in the short term, but like any new technology from Redmond, it promises to shift the balance of power in a virtualization market long dominated by VMware Inc.

Although VMware continues to maintain market and mind-share, experts believe .NET and Windows developers are likely to focus more on Microsoft's virtualization strategy over time.

"Many of the customers I speak with have made a sizeable investment in VMware, which continues to own significant mind- and wallet-share in the server-virtualization market," says Christopher Voce, industry analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "But many of them are waiting to see what Microsoft does next in this area."

Even though Microsoft's offerings don't match up feature-for-feature with VMware's offerings, the company is providing a good base-functionality in the Hyper-V hypervisor and an evolving set of management features with System Center Virtual Machine Manager, he adds.

Virtualization, by definition, should be transparent to application developers, says industry analyst Neil Macehiter, of U.K.-based Macehiter Ward-Dutton Ltd. But this technology is not just for servers anymore.

"Developers shouldn't know, or need to know, that their application is running in a virtualized environment," Macehiter says. "But developers are beginning to think about using virtualization to help manage the software development lifecycle -- indeed, this is where VMware began -- through the creation of development and test environments, and by using virtualization to ease the creation of environments by cloning the files that represent virtual operating system instances."

The fact that Microsoft came late to the virtualization party is all but irrelevant, Macehiter observes.

"Think of SQL Server versus Oracle, Sybase [and] Ingres, and look where SQL Server is now," he says. "Microsoft's virtualization strategy is a key foundational pillar of the company's Dynamic IT strategy."

If you look at the company's strategy, it addresses many of the key virtualization requirements: server, desktop and application virtualization, plus the associated management solutions. It's still early days for aspects of the strategy, but it's clear that virtualization is of strategic importance to the company."

-- John K. Waters

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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