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What the Gartner 'Magic Quadrant' Reveals About the Server Virtualization Market

It's a two-horse race at the top, but the smaller players are also helping shape the industry's direction.

The Gartner Inc. "Magic Quadrant" is a much-anticipated graph for vendors in a particular field. It lists what the giant analyst firm believes are the key players in a specified market. And perhaps no market is more fundamental in the virtualization space than x86 Server Virtualization Infrastructure.

Although it's largely taken for granted now, server virtualization is still the foundation on which the entire virtualization house is built. So knowing who the major vendors are is important in understanding where the industry is headed. Gartner released its 2015 Magic Quadrant for x86 Server Virtualization Infrastructure in late July, and the listings are instructive.

VMware, Microsoft Stand Apart
There are no big surprises at the top: VMware is still the leader, and scores highest in both Magic Quadrant categories: Completeness of Vision and Ability to Execute. Microsoft was the only other company in the Leaders quadrant, keeping its firm stranglehold on second place due to the quality of its Hyper-V hypervisor, along with the fact that it's free.

Also, it's interesting to note that for the second year in a row, the Magic Quadrant has no vendors listed in the Visionaries or Challengers sections; it only has Leaders and Niche Players. There are five Niche Players listed, and they're the same five as 2014: Oracle Corp., Odin, Red Hat Inc., Citrix Systems Inc. and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. Between last year and this year, no companies were added or dropped from the Magic Quadrant, reflecting a stability not to be found in, for instance, the storage or cloud markets.

This may be an indication that there's not a lot of action or innovation in server virtualization. That's not a bad thing, either; it's a well-established technology, and beyond a few tweaks here and there, it does what it's supposed to do, and does it well enough and efficiently enough that there's no great clamor for the shiny new toys.

Take, for example, the spring release of vSphere 6.0. VMware touted that its flagship product had more than 650 new features. But the main upgrades to the hypervisor itself had to do with increased scalability, like doubling the number of hosts per cluster from 32 to 64 (and correspondingly supporting up to 8,000 virtual machines [VMs]), and supporting up to 128 vCPUs and 4TB RAM in a VM. While very nice to have, that's not groundbreaking technology. There were breakthroughs (some would argue) in storage, with things like virtual volumes, but those don't relate as directly to server virtualization.

Examining the Niches
That doesn't mean nobody's trying, however. Oracle, and especially Red Hat, are doing interesting things, according to Gartner: "Red Hat continues to make good progress in this year's Magic Quadrant, primarily due to a strong tie between KVM adoption and OpenStack and an increase in OpenStack adoption and integration." KVM, of course, stands for Kernel-based Virtual Machine, and is the hypervisor of choice for the OpenStack cloud platform. OpenStack, and how various companies work with it, is an important factor in how Gartner ranks server virtualization vendors.

Consider, for example, Gartner's advice: Red Hat "... should also align tightly with growing interest in OpenStack, especially for private clouds." Red Hat can also press an advantage for those enterprises looking to avoid vendor lock-in; VMware has an OpenStack offering -- VMware Integrated OpenStack (VIO) -- but it requires use of ESXi, the VMware hypervisor, as the underlying infrastructure. VIO also makes use of the extensive VMware management tools, which can be a good thing for VMware-focused administrators because there's no learning curve; at the same time, it creates more lock-in.

Oracle
Companies wanting to avoid lock-in will also want to avoid Oracle -- unless they already have a lot of Oracle, in which case lock-in is almost a given. While Oracle scores relatively low on Completeness of Vision, it ranks highest among the Niche Players for Ability to Execute.

That's because it offers a complete virtualization stack and strong product line. "Oracle is focused on an application-driven virtualization strategy that goes beyond the hypervisor to provide full integration across the Oracle software portfolio," Gartner states. The Oracle hypervisor, Oracle VM, is based on the open source Xen hypervisor. But, like everything it gets its hands on, Oracle makes Xen its own, and tweaks it enough to not be usable on other platforms.

Because of those vendor handcuffs, Gartner says it's seen a drop in customers asking about Oracle VM. Whether that bothers Oracle, which has always gone its own way, is another matter entirely.

Huawei
U.S.-based readers may not be very familiar with Huawei, which focuses more on South America and Asia, especially China. Gartner says the company "mainly targets telcos and emerging markets." Its virtualization stack is called FusionSphere, and is based on the Xen hypervisor. Tellingly, however, Gartner says Huawei is developing a KVM product suite, "and this is [its] stated technology direction."

Huawei, like most other virtualization vendors, is starting to integrate OpenStack into its offerings (hence the new KVM emphasis). A caution, however, is in order for North American businesses considering Huawei for their virtualization/cloud needs: the stack runs mainly on Huawei hardware, and service and support in the United States could be spotty, Gartner warns.

Odin
Odin is the cloud/Web part of the company Parallels, famous for its Type 2 hypervisor most often found on Mac computers that need to run Windows programs. Virtualization veterans may also remember Virtuozzo, an early version of the container technology that's exploding in popularity now, especially the Docker implementation. Virtuozzo, which Parallels has been refining for years, did containers before containers were cool.

In terms of its place in the market, Gartner says that "Odin targets service providers that serve small or midsize business customers -- a loyal, viable and expanding community for the company." Given its narrow focus, Gartner ranks Odin high for Ability to Execute -- higher than every Niche Player except Oracle. That tight focus, however, gets Odin placed behind Red Hat and Citrix for Completeness of Vision.

Gartner says that Odin "... offers the best solution for service providers building high-density and isolated solutions around common workloads, such as Web services." It's also working with Docker on developing container standards, which is a good thing for any emerging technology. The challenge for Odin, though, is that most everyone's heard of Docker, while far fewer know of Odin, even though it's been in the game much longer. Perception is important, and Docker is perceived to be "the" container technology of the moment.

Citrix
As for Citrix, Gartner believes it has pretty much waved the white flag when it comes to server virtualization. It's been several years since Citrix has been in the Leaders category, and is just middle-of-the-pack even in Niche Players. "... it is clear Citrix is no longer investing to keep up with market leaders VMware and Microsoft -- at least for traditional server virtualization in the datacenter," Gartner concludes. Even the release of XenServer 6.5 in January didn't move the needle.

This doesn't mean that Citrix isn't seeing growth in other areas -- it is. It's investing in its virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions and making inroads into the cloud, but in terms of just server virtualization, it's pretty much over for Citrix.

No OSS
Gartner, as usual, also noted that it doesn't rank stand-alone open source software (OSS) projects like Xen, KVM, OpenVZ or LXC. It's not that they aren't viable options, but rather that they're community-run offerings that might not have the same financial or marketing goals that commercial vendors have. They're also much more likely to be modified and customized, making them hard to fit into a single category.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.

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