Sun rises on virtualization

It’s not one of the first companies most IT managers associate with server virtualization, but Sun Microsystems‘ [Nasdaq: JAVA] virtualization strategy is broad enough and adaptable enough to appeal to many customers who aren’t already tied to VMware or Microsoft products, users and analysts say.

“Sun has a virtualization product in every category that matters,” says Al Hopper, an engineering consultant for Logical Approach in Plano, Tex., and former member of Sun’s OpenSolaris Governing Board.

Sun is offering server virtualization capabilities across all its hardware platforms; it offers virtualization technologies for x86-based, SPARC and UltraSPARC hardware, as well as for hardware from other vendors such as Dell and IBM.

Sun’s main virtualization solution is based on Solaris Containers, a virtualization or partitioning technology built into the Solaris 10 operating environment that has been available on x86-based and SPARC server platforms since January 2005.

Solaris Containers is an operating system virtualization platform that isolates or “contains” software applications within software-defined boundaries that maintain their own identity. According to Steve Wilson, VP of xVM for Sun, 25 per cent of Solaris 10 customers use Sun Containers.

In December 2005, Sun further bolstered its virtualization strategy by introducing UltraSPARC T1 processor-based CoolThreads servers that came with built-in server partitioning or virtualization technology called Logical Domains (LDoms). LDoms lets as many as 128 physical servers be consolidated on one CoolThreads system.

Sun supplemented its Solaris Containers and LDoms virtualization technologies with the introduction of xVM, a platform for x86-based servers, in October 2007. The company is presently beta testing xVM, which it released as open source and expects to ship this summer.

“Last year, we got much more aggressive on moving into the virtualization space with commodity x86-based hardware, as well the ability to work with Linux and Windows workloads in addition to just Solaris,” Sun’s Wilson says. “That’s what has led us to the xVM strategy.”

Sun’s xVM strategy is not only for Sun-based hardware. Sun, according to Wilson, has close partnerships with Dell and IBM. In 2007, for instance, Dell inked a deal with Sun to distribute Solaris 10 on its PowerEdge servers.

“OpenSolaris runs on servers that aren’t made by Sun,” says Gordon Haff, senior analyst with research firm Illuminata. “There’s no reason people wouldn’t use the technology on non-Sun x86 servers.”

xVM is based on the open source Xen virtual machine monitor (hypervisor) developed at the University of Cambridge in England. Xen has also been adopted for integration into Novell’s SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux operating platforms, and Virtual Iron’s Extended Enterprise Edition.

Sun took Xen one step further by ramping up its capabilities for high-availability and performance. The company has added predictive self-healing, a technology that adds a software layer that can survive a CPU or memory failure and protect the applications that were running. It has also added its ZFS file system technology, which provides an advanced backup and snapshot technology for protecting guest virtual machines.

With Sun’s virtual network technology, which will be available in the second half of this year, users will be able to hand out network shares, do bandwidth metering and limiting and “in effect let users guarantee the same quality of service in the same way as they do with the CPU,” Wilson says.

Sun also is complementing xVM with a management platform called xVM Ops Center, which also will manage Sun Containers and LDoms at some point later this year.

Where does all this leave Sun competitively right now, compared to VMware and Microsoft? “IT organizations with favorable relationships with Sun have been interested in holding off on x86 virtualization projects until xVM Server matures,” says Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with the Burton Group.

“Sun has a lot of work to do to go after the x86 market and they face formidable competition,” Wolf says. “Still, Sun has a very good end-to-end virtualization strategy, and I think a number of organizations would look highly on a centralized virtualization management stack that includes LDoms, Solaris Containers, and Xen-based virtualization.”

Sun took the right approach in designing xVM to run VMware and Microsoft VMs unmodified on the Xen hypervisor, Wolf says. But he adds that convincing organizations with little or no Sun installed base that Sun is the right virtualization vendor for them is going to take time.

“At this point, I’m not ready to rule out Sun as a potential major competitor in the virtualization space,” Wolf says.

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