Dell CTO scores A on virtualization test

Summary:If you ask me (and maybe VMware president Diane Green), Dell CTO Kevin Kettler has got virtualization right.  According to a News.

If you ask me (and maybe VMware president Diane Green), Dell CTO Kevin Kettler has got virtualization right.  According to a News.com report by Stephen Shankland, yesterday, Kettler told a LinuxWorld Boston crowd:

There are lot of players that have been entrenched in the virtualization market" that need to understand that standardization is "the only way to make these environments robust..."

Earlier this week,  Green took Microsoft to task in her blog, citing the licensing requirements behind the file formats used for Microsoft's virtualization technologies The software industry needs to rethink licensing agreements for virtualized environments. versus the file formats for that of VMware's which she said are free for the taking (in other words, no license requirements).  Unencumbered technologies often end up as de facto or de jure market standards.  In other words, provided VMware'sVirtual Machine Disk Format (VMDK) and other associated interfaces (see VMware's Web page on this) are truly unencumbered, they stand a better shot at widespread adoption than do any proprietary offerings. 

That said, VMDK openness doesn't appear to have merited the attention of XEN Source, the open source approach to virtualization.  XEN Source has open sourced its own hypervisor -- the layer of technology that's critical to keeping virtual machines (VMs) separate (known as partitioning) while meting out available system resources (processor slices, memory, etc.) to each of them (the VMs). 

Even worse, in a reversal of fortunes that's atypical of the chasm between the open source community and Microsoft, XEN Source licensed Microsoft's proprietary Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format for usage with its commercial offering: XEN Enterprise (the implications being that it won't be available to XEN Source's open source version since the open source ability to sub-license is incompatible with commercial licensing schemes).  The move at this week's LinuxWorld may have been what forced VMware's handsince it too used LinuxWorld to announce the license-free terms under which its formats and interfaces are now available.  Wrote CRN's Paula Rooney of the developments:

XenSource announced the deal with Microsoft and formally launched XenEnterprise, which is slated to begin shipping in the second half. XenSource is the Palo Alto, Calif.-based commercial spinoff of the Xen open-source project...At LinuxWorld, VMware--which competes against Microsoft and will compete against Xen open-source virtualization--responded by announcing the availability of its virtual machine disk format specification to developers and vendors without royalties, restrictions or the need for licensing.....Akimbi Systems, Altiris, BMC Software, IBM, PlateSpin, rPath, Surgient, Symantec and Trend Micro said they will support VMware's specification.

Although Dell's Kettler didn't make any specific announcements regarding which "standards" he was leaning in the direction of, the demonstrations he gave stands in contrast to quotes appearing on VMware's Web site.  Wrote Shankland of the demo:

Kettler demonstrated a Dell PC running Windows Server 2003 in one virtual machine and Red Hat Enterprise Linux in another. Each operating system could access Web pages hosted by the other, communicating through the Xen "hypervisor" software that manages virtualization. 

Meanwhile, Dell is listed on VMware's partner page and quotes Dell senior VP Jeff Clarke as saying:

"Standardization brings benefits to the entire industry"..... "Dell continually innovates around standards to deliver on our Scalable Enterprise vision with products and services that help customers better utilize computing resources and keep costs low. We applaud VMware for opening its APIs to standardization to promote interoperability and flexibility in customer computing environments."

Whether its hedging or simply playing both cards, Dell isn't alone in its apparent divided allegiance.  Also appearing in support for both environments are Red Hat, Novell, Intel, and AMD with Red Hat actually including the XEN support in its distributions.  Says Paul Cormier, Red Hat exec VP of Engineering, on VMware's Web site:

More than ever standards are critical to innovation in enterprise infrastructures. Red Hat applauds the efforts of technology partners like VMware who are working to establish open, standards-based solutions," said Paul Cormier, Executive Vice President of Engineering at Red Hat. "We are pleased to work with VMware, partners and the community to offer customers virtualization as a key component of their open source architectures.

Confused? I am.  One thing is clear to me though.  VMware waited way too long to open up its interfaces. Had it done this two or three years ago when other other heavily commercialized software companies like Sun realized that adoption and "free"go together,  Green's comments on her blog don't ring of a methodically designed strategy but rather, a knee-jerk-uh-oh-our-hand-has-been-forced reaction.

Meanwhile, even more interesting to me were some of the Kettler comments that were picked up by InfoWorld's Shelley Solheim.  Solheim quotes Kettler as saying that the software industry needs to rethink licensing agreements for virtualized environments.  I couldn't agree more. While he didn't name names, let's say that the reform needs to begin with Microsoft.  Microsoft needs to lead the industry by making it possible for end-users to create and run VMs with as many copies of Windows as they feel they need to as long as those copies are for their own personal use (and not for building the equivalent of a mainframe where each of the VMs is remotely accessible by different users).  Those VMs also need the freedom to be portable.  For example, if my notebook fails (which it has), I should be able to take my VMs and run them on another machine that can support them without fear of the BSA making a public example out of my software practices.

Solheim also picked up on a one of Kettler's better comments about the benefits of virtualization when it comes to security.  Said Kettler:

As an example of secure browsing, he demonstrated on a Red Hat Xen virtualization-enabled Dell Optiplex desktop how a user could create a virtual machine and then if it were infected by a virus, destroy that virtual machine and re-create a new one.

Bingo. This is a big benefit of virtualization on the desktop (and notebooks).  Me personally?  I already have a stable of stable VMs locked and loaded.  If ever one of my "production" VMs becomes unstable, corrupted, or infected, I can clone the last known stable version of that VM and I'm back in business within minutes (taking great care not to repeat whatever user mistake I made to destabilize the other VM in the first place).  Think these are drastic steps?  Think again.  Earlier this week, Microsoft said that the only sure way to correct an infected system might be to wipe it completely clean and reinstall Windows.  Wrote eWeek's Ryan Naraine of the disclosure:

In a rare discussion about the severity of the Windows malware scourge, a Microsoft security official said businesses should consider investing in an automated process to wipe hard drives and reinstall operating systems as a practical way to recover from malware infestation...."When you are dealing with rootkits and some advanced spyware programs, the only solution is to rebuild from scratch. In some cases, there really is no way to recover without nuking the systems from orbit," Mike Danseglio, program manager in the Security Solutions group at Microsoft, said in a presentation at the InfoSec World conference here."

While fellow ZDNet blogger George Ou agrees and has additional steps that can be taking to keep your systems insulated from malware, I couldn't disagree more with what Danseglio is recommending (and how Ou agrees with him).  Time is money and rebuilding systems is painful.  For individuals, it's downright impossible.  For business IT staffs, they may be able to return a fresh build to their end-users, but gone will be all of the work that those users did to personalize those systems.  Virtual machines are undeniably the way to think about this problem. 

Start with the approach that your bare metal OS (the host OS) never gets used for anything more than hosting your VMs and you'll probably never have to wipe your hard drive out.  Ever.  To the extent that you don't use the host OS for anything user related (and to pick an OS that isn't exactly a big target for malware authors), try using Linux as the underlying OS.  VMware has a very long list of supported distributions of Linux.  I'm sure several of them can be installed and scaled back (to conserve resources) in a way that makes it the ideal host.   This approach is what Kettler and even Microsoft (not with Linux) should be advocating.  Microsoft, of course, can use its Virtual PC product to make child's play out of the process.  Dell and other system OEMs (IBM, HP, etc.) can bundle VM technology with some of their own secret sauce so as to lead end-users of their systems to a safe, reliable, and idiot-proof set of VM-based best practices.  This is especially so now that hardware support for virtualization is implicit in technologies coming from both Intel and AMD.

Kettler has it right.  No matter how you look at it, VMs are the way to go.  But there are few items (like licensing) that need to be worked out.  And Dell, like others, may need to figure out what camp they're in.  Now that XEN Source has licensed Microsoft's VHD, challenges lay ahead for VMware on the server front.  On the desktop, even though Kettler's demo used an Dell Optiplex, bear in mind that he was using XEN Enterprise (which can run Windows) and will most often get used in server environments.  VMware's sub-$200 solution along with its free player technology is still the one to beat on the desktop.  Especially for businesses.

Topics: Virtualization

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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