VMware tries to expand throughout the data center

By , IDG News Service |  Virtualization, VMware, VMworld

VMware, facing increased pressure from rivals Microsoft and Citrix Systems, will announce new products this week intended to let customers extend their use of virtualization beyond servers and into all corners of the data center, including storage and network equipment.

The new products, to be described at the company's VMworld conference in Las Vegas this week, are scheduled for release in 2009 and are an effort to build what VMware calls a "virtual data center operating system." VDC OS is not a product itself but a set of capabilities that will appear in updated releases of VMware's Infrastructure 3 software and other products.

"The VDC OS aggregates all hardware elements -- servers, storage and networking -- into a unified single resource. You take piece parts of the data center and let them act as a single big computer that can be allocated on demand to any application that needs the resources," said Bogomil Balkansky, VMware senior director of product marketing.

VMware thinks customers can use virtualization to transform their data centers into more flexible cloud-computing environments like those offered by Amazon and Google. Among the new software to be announced this week is vCloud, which will allow customers to export virtual environments -- including virtual machines and their attached policy information -- onto the servers of third-party cloud providers.

It's an ambitious plan that analysts say VMware needs to pursue to maintain a technology lead over rivals. VMware built an early lead in server virtualization but has been under pressure since Microsoft rolled out its own hypervisor earlier this year, and with Citrix expected to soon update its competing XenServer product.

Many questions are likely to go unanswered this week, including how the products will be priced and packaged and a timetable for delivery beyond simply "next year." Paul Maritz, VMware's new CEO, is due to unveil the new products and direction in a speech at VMworld Tuesday morning.

The new products can be broken roughly into two categories: software that works at the virtual machine level for improving application performance and availability and infrastructure products for managing the wider data center.

On the infrastructure side is vNetwork, which Balkansky said will allow customers to configure a single "virtual switch" for a pool of virtualized servers, instead of having to configure individual switches for each host computer. VMware will announce a product jointly developed with Cisco Systems to let network administrators configure the virtual switch from within Cisco's network management tools.

Also planned for next year is vStorage, with "thin provisioning" for allocating storage to virtual machines more efficiently. When IT staff set up virtual machines today they assign to them a certain volume of storage, even though all that storage isn't used right away. Thin provisioning lets the administrator assign a smaller volume of physical storage and then sends an alert when more needs to be added.

The alerts will appear in vCenter, an updated version of VMware's Virtual Center management suite also planned for 2009. VMware will release an API (application programming interface) that storage vendors can use to give visibility into vStorage from their own management tools, Balkansky said. VCenter will also gain new modules including CapacityIQ, ConfigControl and Orchestrator.

Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with Burton Group, said vNetwork could heal a divide between server and network administrators. Virtualization has "built a wall between server admins and network admins," he said. "The network guys were never really comfortable with the virtualization guys having this hidden, virtual network that they didn't have visibility into. This changes that and lets the network guys manage a virtual network like any other."

VMware is opening its architecture more to other vendors, Wolf said. "One of the things that has been going well for Citrix with their XenServer product is that its architecture is probably the most open in the industry. I think this is a good start for VMware, though further opening their storage architecture would help as well," he said.

VCloud is a set of technologies that let hosting providers like BT and T Mobile turn their data centers into cloud environments, Balkansky said. It will also allow customers to connect their data centers to those clouds, so they can move virtual environments off their own premises if they want them hosted by a third party.

"We'll build a set of APIs that will allow customers to extend a virtual machine from their on-premise infrastructure out into the cloud. It's like Vmotion for moving a virtual machine from an internal to an external data center and back again, while still having those policies for availability and security attached." Vmotion is VMware's existing technology for moving running virtual machines from one physical server to another.

Use of vCloud will start with "baby steps," Balkansky acknowledged. "We see interest from large companies that want to be able to rent some of their overflow capacity to others, it will probably start there, and it will start with the kind of noncritical workloads you would be comfortable delegating to a third party."

VMware wants to be seen as less of a pure infrastructure provider and more as a company that helps businesses deliver applications more reliably to end users, Wolf said. VDC OS "gives them a message they can use to combat Microsoft, because Microsoft has been building a strong story around the end user and the application and how that relates to the virtual infrastructure."

The products for improving application performance will include VMware Fault Tolerance, for ensuring transactions continue in the event of a server failure, and VMware Data Recovery, a basic backup and recovery tool. To help applications scale better the company will provide the ability to add new CPUs and memory to a virtual machine without having to restart it, and it will increase the amount of CPUs and memory a virtual machine can access to eight CPUs and 256G bytes of RAM, from 4 CPUs and 64G bytes today, Balkansky said.

Also planned is vApp, a development tool that will let ISVs (independent software vendors) and large enterprises create applications that are prepackaged with multiple virtual machines, along with their policy and configuration requirements. VApp will be based on the Open Virtual Machine Format, a specification that Citrix is also supporting, which is supposed to let the applications be deployed on any OVF-compliant hypervisor.

Finally, VMware will update its strategy around desktop virtualization and introduce a new brand, vClient. The company is developing a new "client virtualization layer" for laptop and desktop PCs, and eventually also for smartphones. Customers will be able to run guest operating systems on this virtualization layer without needing a host OS underneath, potentially reducing OS license costs.

VMworld starts Monday evening at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, and runs until Thursday. The company expects 14,000 people to attend, up from 11,000 last year.

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