Red Hat pushes Linux as a service model

The vendor has announced a virtualisation strategy that it claims could boost its Enterprise Linux offering onto 50 percent of the world's servers by 2015

In a sprawling series of announcements on Wednesday, the Linux operating system vendor updated its virtualisation abilities in a new release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

Red Hat announced a new "appliance" version of RHEL for release next year, which could move software vendors to a new software distribution model. US customers will be able to buy the operating system by the hour as a web service, through a partnership with Amazon.

"We predict that Red Hat will more than double its market share, and will power over 50 percent of the world's servers by 2015," said Paul Cormier, Red Hat's vice president of engineering. "Silos have to be bridged, and in the hosting market, new models to purchase capacity on demand are emerging."

The big buzzword in the announcement was "automation", which Red Hat applies to its efforts to simplify the building of enterprise infrastructure, for both users and software vendors. "Any application can run, anywhere," said Werner Knoblich, vice president of the EMEA region at Red Hat. "It can be on a physical server, or on a virtual server, or on a compute cloud, or an appliance. Software vendors only need to certify it once and it automatically runs anywhere."

RHEL runs on hardware from x86 servers to mainframes, as well as on virtual servers and those offered over the web by Amazon, said Cormier. As well as running on these different places, it is managed with exactly the same tools, while using other options such as VMware will introduce different tools and make the work harder, said Knoblich.

A private beta service on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), a web host for business software, will let users "buy RHEL by the hour", according to Knoblich. "It's only available in the US now, but our clear intention is to replicate this with other hosting and web service providers. We are looking at doing this in Europe and Asia."

Although RHEL 5.1 is only a point release, it has vastly improved virtualisation support, said Knoblich. "We can now can run Windows as a guest in a more proficient way than before, and we have 200 percent better performance in a virtualised environment than VMware."

The system now supports virtual guests for Windows XP, Server 2000, Server 2003 and the Windows 2008 beta.

Six months after introducing virtualisation in RHEL version 5, the company has deployed more than 18,000 virtualised servers, and plans to deliver 50,000 within the first year. Virtualisation in RHEL is provided by the popular Xen hypervisor, although the company also supports KVM in its Fedora software. The company would not discuss any plans to switch from one to the other, and said it was not important anyway: "We are not saying we will Xen for ever," said Knoblich. "We could replace it with an alternative solution, maybe KVM, but it would make no difference at all to the user."

The Red Hat Appliance OS, to be delivered in the first half of 2008, allows software vendors to deliver a software package, including a dedicated version of RHEL, to be run on virtualised hardware.

"I'm very excited about this," said Knoblich. "It's fully compatible with RHEL, but it's a scaled-down version."

Software vendors moving to the appliance model would no longer need to handle certification and support for multiple operating systems, Knoblich explained, and users would not have to install the applications for themselves.

"The pain point for ISVs today is certifying multiple platforms and operating systems," said Knoblich. "It costs a lot of money to do this for different versions of Windows and Linux — and then the customer always has to go through a complicated configuration process."

Appliances will simplify this he said: "Package an image, including the application and the operating system, and you can deliver one single image, which plugs into a virtual machine." The RHEL appliance will run on the major hypervisors, he said, including VMware, Xen and Microsoft's Viridian which is due in 2008.

Analysts are picking the announcement over with some scepticism: "There's a fair amount of froth with a bit of coffee underneath," said Clive Longbottom of QuoCirca. "Overall, I think that Red Hat has something here — but Red Hat and Amazon Web Services will need to strongly message it in business, not technical terms. Once a person has embraced the concept of software as a service, the platform becomes immaterial — it's the function and reliability that matter."

For Longbottom, the Amazon hosting will be significant, especially if Amazon does develop into a major software as a service player. But he pointed out that it is not new: "Sun's on-demand Grid took the same approach — payment based on usage — and has been a bit of a flop. Red Hat will need a lot of marketing put behind the message to persuade possible users that a) the idea works, b) the business model works and c) the basic connectivity is guaranteed to the same level of availability that they would expect from an in-house solution."

Paul Cormier believes Red Hat will power over 50 percent of the world's servers by 2015


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