Startup takes new approach to server virtualization

A little-known, Boston-area startup is beta-testing technology designed to let users quickly configure "virtual" multiprocessor systems out of inexpensive PC machines. Called Katana Technology Inc., the 30-person company has not yet revealed details of its upcoming product, but appears to have developed a novel approach to consolidating data center resources.

Founded in 2003, Katana has developed software that runs directly on computer hardware, beneath the operating system. The software can run a number of virtual machines on a single server. A virtual machine is a self-contained operating environment consisting of software that appears, to an application or an operating system, as though it's an entire computer.

Software from rival developers also accomplishes the feat of managing multiple virtual machines on servers, but Katana's technology can also be used to make a large number of smaller PCs appear to be a very large, symmetric multiprocessing machine, said Scott Davis, Katana's president and chief technical officer.

Katana's approach to virtualization is similar to that pioneered by Digital Equipment Corp.'s VAX clusters, but the technology is designed to work with hardware and software that is much more widely adopted than Digital's proprietary products, said Davis, who once served as the technical director for VAX clusters.

The initial release of the Katana product, expected in April, will work with Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc.'s distribution of the Linux operating system and with hardware based on Intel Corp.'s x86 microprocessors, he said.

One of the key benefits of the Katana technology is that it can be used to take applications that are normally installed on large multiprocessor systems and run them on a number of smaller, less expensive dual-processor machines, according to Davis. Such applications include database or enterprise resource planning systems.

"Trying to split an application across multiple systems is hard," Davis said. "We've done that through virtualization, and that's one of the key differentiators that we have that nobody else has."

More details on the Katana products will come during an official company launch in February, by which point Katana expects to have changed its name to VirtuOS Computing Inc.

The technology, currently being tested in a number of pilot projects, will only work with computers that use network-based storage, Davis said. Servers in a Katana-managed system will start up a virtual machine instead of an operating system. That virtual machine will be managed by special hardware that will pool data center resources into "virtual computers" that will, in turn, start up the operating system, according to Davis.

"They are really virtualizing the hardware below the operating system, which makes them different," said Dana Gardner, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston briefed by Katana. Because Katana makes it possible for users to gradually add more processors to their virtual server environment it will be particularly appealing to users who are looking for a flexible way to add computer power to their applications, and who are looking for a way to make more efficient use of their data center resources, he said.

Because of limitations in a portion of the Linux kernel, called the scheduler, Katana's virtual SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) machines can be no larger than 16 processors. Gardner, however, believes the technology may appeal to users who are looking to build the equivalent of 4-processor or 8-processor SMP machines out of inexpensive dual-processor systems.

Katana joins a growing number of vendors hoping to sell this kind of technology. Research firm IDC estimates that virtualization software sales amounted to US$4.3 billion in 2003, and will grow to $14.2 billion by 2008.

In addition to major vendors like IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp., a host of smaller vendors, including Cassatt Corp., Platform Computing Inc. and VMware Inc., have entered the market.

"Each one of these people has come up with a way to build a virtual environment," said Dan Kusnetzky, an IDC analyst also briefed by Katana. "The trickiest thing about any of these approaches is how do you take applications that were never written to be virtualized and somehow create a virtual environment that they can flow into without requiring changes."

Davis believes that his engineers accomplished this.

"Sometimes you want to carve up a physical system into multiple smaller systems; other times you want to aggregate systems together, other times you want to create high available virtual computers," he said. "We do all of those things and it's all transparent to the applications because we've done virtualization at the right level."

Davis did not provide naming or pricing information on the Katana product.

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