Another (Red) Hat into the Ring

Linux developer Red Hat believes open source is the future of virtualization, but are its new platform and hypervisor too late?

As companies whose core philosophies differ substantially, one would think open source Red Hat Inc. and proprietary Microsoft would offer radically different virtualization solutions. However, both companies are taking strikingly similar approaches.

Consider, for example, that both companies got a late start with virtualization-Red Hat even later than Microsoft. Beyond the timing, however, one aspect of the two companies' disparate visions ties them closely together: They both firmly believe that virtualization should come as part of the base operating system installed on a server. In Microsoft's case, it's Windows Server 2008, which includes Hyper-V as part of its plumbing. For Red Hat, it's Kernel Virtual Machine (KVM), which the company has baked into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

The question in all of this for Red Hat is whether it can make the same kind of virtualization inroads Microsoft has already made.

Three-Pronged Approach
Red Hat officially announced its foray into enterprise virtualization on Feb. 23 of this year, with three new products:

  • Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager for Servers
  • Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager for Desktops
  • Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Hypervisor

The real push, though, started Sept. 4, 2008, with the $107 million acquisition of Qumranet Inc. Qumranet had two things Red Hat wanted above all else-KVM and SolidICE, a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology.

Red Hat had been a leading proponent of the Xen open source hypervisor until the Qumranet buy. Xen was a component of RHEL, the company's flagship product, but Red Hat soon ditched Xen for KVM. Coincidence or not, Xen development is overseen by a new virtualization rival for Red Hat, Citrix Systems Inc. Citrix has its own version of Xen, called XenServer, but it's still involved in the open source virtualization community. Citrix also has one of the two leading VDI products, XenDesktop.

Spreading the Word
Now Red Hat has offerings that compete with those of major virtualization players VMware Inc., Microsoft and Citrix. To hear Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens tell it, Red Hat's goal is not so much competition with those rivals but instead the spread of the virtualization gospel. "We're trying to drive the standardization, mass adoption and commoditization of virtualization capability. That's always been the agenda," says Stevens.

"There are a lot of people who love Red Hat Enterprise Linux ... They have a lot of opportunity to penetrate into a very strong and loyal customer base."

Andi Mann, Analyst, Enterprise Management Associates Inc.

"It's not about new products, and how we capture revenue around new products," he adds. "That's an artifact. It's around whatever moves we need to make to get virtualization a part of every platform, a part of every chipset."

Red Hat's server virtualization manager includes such management must-haves as live migration, high availability, virtual machine (VM) snapshots, power management, thin provisioning, monitoring and reporting. Qumranet is at the heart of it all, Stevens says. "Their enterprise management technology was so good, that's what we actually based our server management on-that was the codebase," he says. "Our server and desktop management is all based on the Qumranet management architecture."

Mark Bowker, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass., agrees that management is the key factor. "If you look at a product like VMware vCenter, their goal is to be really good at managing VMware," Bowker says. "If you look at Microsoft, VMM [System Center Virtual Machine Manager] is really Microsoft-centric, but also [can manage] VMware and potentially Citrix environments. Ultimately, whether it's VMware, Microsoft or Red Hat, the direction they need to take is to roll up into a bigger data center management orchestration tool-the Tivoli-, BEA-, CA-type of solutions. To achieve a truly dynamic data center that's run on business policy and truly automated, it's got to be able to integrate with bigger, higher-level management solutions."

The Third Oar
Andi Mann, an analyst with Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates Inc., isn't overwhelmed by Red Hat's wares. "This is the big problem-it's not differentiated enough," Mann says. "[Red Hat] is coming in as the third oar. They're coming in with a very limited set of management tools. The only thing that strikes me about this is that they're all integrated; that's great, and a really nice thing, and not all the competing vendors are doing that. But you've got one option."

"We're trying to drive the standardization, mass adoption and commoditization of virtualization capability."Brian Stevens, CTO, Red Hat Inc.

Brian Stevens, CTO, Red Hat Inc.

Red Hat won't sell any product; as it does with RHEL, it will sell service-based subscriptions to the products instead. Stevens says the server management and desktop management offerings will be separate, so two subscriptions will be necessary for a complete solution.

Some analysts believe Red Hat's biggest challenge in virtualization will be convincing potential customers who aren't Red Hat fanboys that the company's virtualization effort is more than a pure Linux play. Mann is skeptical of Red Hat's chances. "I think they've got a good opportunity to make some penetration into limited, internal departmental deployments in their current market," he says. "Ultimately, I think that doesn't provide any stability for them or their clients, and that will long-term fail."

What success Red Hat will have, Mann believes, will rest on the reputation of RHEL. "There are a lot of people who love Red Hat Enterprise Linux; they want to go with them for a 'single throat to choke,'" Mann says. "They have a lot of opportunity to penetrate into a very strong and loyal customer base."

Open Source Is the Key
Stevens, of course, disagrees. He thinks open source is the key to virtualization. "We believe any approach to try to make virtualization ubiquitous that's not open source is always going to be ripe for disruption," he says. "It's going to put all the control into one vendor. That's the case today. Who would we be if we just did a Red Hat-only hypervisor, or proprietary [solution]? We wouldn't be any different than anybody else out on the street."

To that end, Red Hat promises to work well with others. Over the last several months, for example, it has announced an interoperability agreement with Microsoft that will allow RHEL to run on Hyper-V and vice-versa, as well as a deal with Cisco Systems Inc. that will offer RHEL on Cisco's new Unified Computing System (UCS) servers.

The current economic environment may also provide a boost to RHEL-based virtualization; after all, it's free to download and use, unlike VMware Infrastructure or Hyper-V (which comes integrated with Windows Server 2008, although a free version, Hyper-V Server, does exist). Stevens says Red Hat wants "to allow customers to have adoption with or without a relationship with Red Hat. That's part and parcel to the strategy of ubiquity, with the end state being that the hypervisor ships with the hardware. That's really where we want to get to," he says.

Are we already there, though? Phil Hochmuth, an analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc., says we're close. "Hypervisors are pretty commoditized. There's not that much differentiation," Hochmuth asserts. Despite that, having one is still important, he says: "It was important to [Red Hat] to say, 'We're going to have a hypervisor; we're going to have a platform on which you can provision virtual servers.' It's good that they did it, for their own customers, and to keep up with Microsoft and others."

How Many Hypervisors Is Too Many?
Mann is more skeptical. "I don't think anyone wants to support a fourth hypervisor. That's part of the reason I think Red Hat has come out with a management toolset at the same time as announcing, 'This is our hypervisor of choice'-because you need management. But I don't think anyone else is keen to manage KVM."

On the contrary, Red Hat's Stevens thinks KVM is a natural. "It's not Xen versus KVM at all," he insists. "We love Xen. There shouldn't be any regret, apologies or defensiveness-Xen is wonderful, and KVM is wonderful. It's just an evolution."

Red Hat, realizing that many customers use and like Xen, isn't killing off support anytime soon. Stevens says RHEL with KVM will appear in RHEL 5.4, which he expects will be available in August or September. Red Hat will gradually work to move customers over.

But the winners in the virtualization contest won't be determined by hypervisors. According to Enterprise Strategy Group's Bowker, it's the management platform, not the hypervisor, that will really matter. "That's really where I'm going to make my decision," Bowker says.

Applications are another key, Bowker adds: "I may say, 'You know what, I'm running SAP in this environment. SAP is performance-tuned specifically for what I've got going for this database, this front-end, this virtualization solution-so I'm going to choose this solution.'"

"To achieve a truly dynamic data center that's run on business policy and truly automated, it's got to be able to integrate with bigger, higher-level management solutions."

Mark Bowker, Analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Expanding the Ecosystem Red Hat also has a lot of catching up
to do on the ecosystem front. "Look at VMware especially, with the ESX marketplace for management," says Mann. "You've got everyone managing ESX-for configuration, for patch management, for provisioning, for automation. Everyone is doing that. I'm literally tracking a list of 140 vendors writing management options for mostly ESX, a lot of them for Xen, and some for Hyper-V as well. At the moment, the number of vendors writing management options for KVM? One. So it's a horrible lock-in."

Red Hat would argue that going with a proprietary vendor like VMware is a similar lock-in. Stevens, however, is realistic enough to understand the current market.

"It's going to be difficult for anybody to build the revenue stream VMware has," Stevens says. "We don't expect that, either. We sell [solutions to] hard enterprise problems, and then we commoditize them. That's our business. That's what we did with Linux." He adds: "Anybody that comes in and thinks they're going to grab three-quarters or half of VMware's revenue stream is crazy. We'll monetize it and build a healthy business-but at a fraction of the cost."

Yankee Group's Hochmuth agrees that VMware doesn't have a lot to fear, at least initially, from Red Hat's entrance. "I don't see it as going up against VMware; VMware is such a dominant company," Hochmuth says. "[Red Hat is] competing with them, but it's more of a play to give their own customers more options, instead of trying to take VMware licenses out of enterprises and replace them with Red Hat."

Steady as She Grows
Of course, Red Hat wouldn't mind doing that in large numbers. But the company is content, Stevens says, to grow its virtualization business slowly. He compares it to playing the stock market.

"It's a multiyear view; it's around investing in the long-haul," he explains. "If you're putting money in the market, are you looking for a 90-day return, two-year return or 10-year return? With everything we do, we're looking for the 10-year return."


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