It's a Literal Virtual Threefer

It's shaping up to be a big week for virtualization announcements, with two of the leading vendors and an enterprise software heavyweight set to unveil spanking new products trimmed with many V's.

On Wednesday, during the company's Beijing user conference, BEA Systems will unveil its new virtualization strategy and an aggressive roadmap for optimizing the operation of Java applications in virtualized environments. This is the San Jose, CA-based company's first foray into virtualization, and the focus of the initiative is Java.

''This is all about optimizing Java,'' BEA's James Sherburne told me. ''No one else is looking specifically at Java environments and optimizing Java applications in a virtual environment. The fact that we have insight all the way down to the JVM level, we think is a huge plus.''

The first product on the roadmap is BEA's WebLogic Server Virtual Edition (WLS-VE), which the company plans to introduce in the first quarter of next year. WLS-VE is a version of its Java application server that includes the new Liquid VM technology, which will enable Java applications to run directly on a hypervisor without a standard OS. Initially, the Liquid VM will work only with VMware’s ESX Server hypervisor, Sherburne said, but the company plans to support other hypervisors in future, including those from XenSource and Microsoft.

There are actually two pieces to BEA's virtualization strategy: bottom-up enablement, which is characterized by the Liquid VM. (Sherburne called it ''our secret sauce.'') On top of that is the management piece, BEA's Liquid Operations Center, which the company plans to introduce in summer 2007.

BEA has been pursing its ''liquid'' computing strategy for about two years, and virtualization fits thematically, and practically. The idea is that, by ''liquefying'' enterprise IT assets through a service oriented architecture from the bottom of the software stack, enterprises become more flexible and (dare I say it) fluid. The company is touting its virtualization solution as a key component of its SOA 360º initiative.

With this announcement, BEA is proving that it's sometimes good to come late to the party. Rather than putting all of their eggs into bare-metal technologies, or focusing solely on a management offering, the company can present its customers with a broader, bottom-up-top-down strategy.

''Virtualization is the most explosive and transformative technology wave to hit the industry since open source,'' James Governor, principal analyst and founder of RedMonk, told me via email. ''BEA wants to take advantage of new approaches to application lifecycle [management] enabled by virtualization, but also to put forward a differentiated approach to take advantage of it. That is where BEA is heading with its strategy. Abstraction is very powerful, but adding abstraction layers can create performance and manageability issues. BEA is, therefore, putting forward a proposition that each VM doesn't need its own copy of the OS to function within a virtualized system.''

Governor hastened to point out that BEA isn't competing with virtualization market leader VMware, but is taking advantage of the virtualization that company has enabled.

The same cannot be said of Virtual Iron Software, which today announced the release of version 3.1 of its enterprise-class virtualization platformand with it, an offer the market will find hard to refuse.

Virtual Iron Version 3.1 is priced at $499 per socket. If my calculations are correct, that's 20 percent of the cost of a comparable offering from VMware. But that's not all! The Virtual Iron product can be downloaded and licensed free when run on a single physical server with up to four sockets. Microsoft and VMware have made similar offers, but both Virtual Server and VMware Server must run on top of a host operating system, while Virtual Iron's freebie comes with a hypervisor that runs on bare metal. That, Virtual Iron's Mike Grandinetti told me, will result big performance improvements over those other products.

The Lowell, MA-based startup released its Xen-based server virtualization platform, Virtual Iron 3.0, in October. That release supported Suse and Red Hat Linux. The 3.1 version adds support for Windows XP and 2003, which is obviously critical enhancement. And it comes with a suite of management tools, including LiveMigration, which allows users to move running VMs between physical servers; LiveCapacity, which supports dynamic reallocation of resources to VMs based on demand; LiveRecovery, which provides automated failover; and LiveMaintenance, which allows physical machines to be taken offline without disturbing the VMs running on them.

Virtual Iron's new pricing scheme brings its products within striking distance of XenSource's XenEnterprise product, which starts at $750 for a two-way server license. Both XenSource and Virtual Iron use the open-source Xen hypervisor for server virtualization.

For its part, Palo Alto, CA-based XenSouce is following the recent release of its XenEnterprise with two new products: XenServer, for Windows standard server environments; and, XenExpress, a free offering that enables single virtual machine test environments.

The company bills XenEnterprise as the market’s first enterprise-grade, commercially packaged virtualization solution based on the open-source Xen hypervisor that supports both Microsoft Windows and Linux.

Both Virtual Iron and XenSource are competing with a veritable (one might even say virtual) market monster in VMware. The EMC subsidiary pioneered virtualization for x86, and it was the only game in town for ages.

''VMware definitely has that first-mover advantage,'' says IDC analyst John Humphreys. ''They've got mindshare, they've got deployments, and they're being taken ever deeper into the organization. So it's going to take a lot to get customers to think about switching. Virtual Iron's pricing is a great first step.''

Why is the virtualization market so lively this week? ''I don't know that the timing is particularly significant,'' says Gordon Haff, principal IT advisor at Illuminata. ''But the fact is, users really like this technology. VMware has been growing by leaps and bounds, and they're making a lot of money for EMC. The question that remains to be answered is, will the competition's products work as well.''

BTW: I just found out that San Jose, CA-based Cassatt Corporation has announced the latest version of its Collage platform, Collage 4.0, which comes with a new VM and network virtualization control capabilities. Cassatt isn't exactly a virtualization vendor, but an enterprise software and services company that provides management tools for existing virtualization products. The Cross-Virtualization Manager (XVM) module of Cassatt Collage may be the first product to support the automated management of the VMware ESX 3.0, Xen 3.0, and XenEnterprise 3.0 virtual machines.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].