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The Sun-Innotek Deal: Panicky or Prescient?

Sun has made its first real foray into PC virtualization space with the acquisition of innotek and its flagship product, VirtualBox. (Note that I said "PC virtualization", not "desktop virtualization". They're very different. PC virtualization, for me, is when one desktop OS is hosted inside another OS, the way Parallels, for instance, creates a VM inside a Mac in which you can run Windows. It's a "Type 2" hypervisor, i.e. one that requires a host OS. Desktop virtualization is the delivery of a user's desktop and apps remotely, from a server. Think Citrix.)

VirtualBox is a free, open source hypervisor. I haven't used it, but Sun said in a press release that it's been downloaded more than four million times since January 2007, meaning that there's a lot of curiosity about it.

My first reaction to the acquisition was that Sun was playing "me too." As in, "All the other major virtualization players are getting into PC virtualization, so we need to get into it, too." That kind of impulse buying without a plan rarely works.

But wisely not trusting my instincts, I called up Dan Kusnetzky of Kusnetzky Group. Dan, along with being brilliant and having a taste for Broadway show tunes, is also a real out-of-the-box thinker. He said he thought the same thing initially. "My first thought was I didn't understand why they did this. [Maybe] they were getting so enthusiastic about virtualization technology that they wanted to purchase one of each [type]."

As he examined it further, however, his mind started to change. Maybe, his reasoning went, Sun was waking up and smelling the coffee -- or the Java, to be more exact. It could be the perfect vehicle for various Sun apps to run anywhere, inside a VM, after writing once. Sound familiar? "Having this tool opens up a whole world of opportunities for Sun that wasn't available" before, Kusnetzky said. "I could kind of see that this was the same thinking that led to Java."

When he blogged about this this morning, here's what he said: "If the company was going to make it possible for everyone to come to the Sun party, they needed something that could work just about anywhere. Acquiring this technology would be far easier than developing their own entry into this branch of the virtual machine software market."

Dan says that he doesn't have any inside information on this; it's just his supposition. But it does make more sense than "Hey, we need a PC virtualization solution since VMware, Microsoft, Parallels and everyone else does!" And it seems to go beyond being a software development tool for Solaris (which Sun made great pains to point out in its press release announcing the innotek purchase). Sun has devoted a ton of resources to their virtualization efforts, and it's coming out with some very sophisticated products, including its Xen-based xVM bare-metal hypervisor and xVM Ops Center management software. In fact, Sun is one of the few companies that comes at virtualization from both the hardware and software end of things. It seems unlikely (although certainly possible) to be a panic move for a company that has taken slow, deliberate steps into the virtualization market.

In the meantime, if you've used VirtualBox, I'd love to hear from you. Let me know what you think of it.

Posted by Keith Ward on 02/13/2008 at 12:48 PM


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