Enterprise Linux Log

Nov 29 2007   2:13PM GMT

Oracle VM and the Linux virtualization revolution

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A few weeks ago, Oracle unveiled its new virtual machine (VM) product, Oracle VM, based on the Xen hypervisor. But why is Oracle introducing its own VM when it already has the Xen VM that comes with the Red Hat code? For an answer, we turn to SearchEnterpriseLinux.com expert Don Rosenberg, who fills us in on what Oracle VM means for users, the competition and for Linux in the enterprise.

Oracle VM
Red Hat ships the Xen VM with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), with the same Red Hat source code that Oracle uses to build its Unbreakable Linux operating system.

But Oracle chose to go directly to Xen.org to download the source code for its own Oracle VM. While Red Hat runs Xen from within an operating system, Oracle runs its VM on a server. From here the Oracle VM deploys agents or images to computers without an operating system on them, creating virtual servers.

Oracle describes its VM as a console for the management of Xen, complete with a built-in operating system, making it a software appliance. The appliance has paravirtualized drivers for RHEL 4 and 5 but currently runs Windows without paravirtualization, resulting in sluggish Windows performance. Oracle claims its VM is three times more efficient than the leading VM (presumably VMware), but this comparison does not refer to speed so much as to the use of resources on a box. On a box that needs an OS and VMware installed, running via VMware would take up roughly three times the resources; Oracle’s software appliance saves space.

Oracle’s virtualization strategy
The Oracle VM is free to download and use; those wanting support will have to sign up for a paid plan. But Oracle says that its virtualization solution is still cheaper than Red Hat’s. RHEL supports some virtualization (at no extra cost), but full-blown implementation requires an additional product: Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Platform.

The Red Hat solution calls for Red Hat-certified products from third parties, but an Oracle VM will run only Oracle databases, middleware and applications. By releasing its own VM, Oracle avoids third-party complications (such as software dependencies and support finger-pointing) and third-party payments. It also ends up controlling the software stack from top to bottom, including virtualization.

One can presumably find Oracle VM customers among the 1,500 that Oracle says already pay for Unbreakable Linux support (Dell, Stanford University, McKesson and Mitsubishi, among others). The unknown number of customers already running Oracle on VMware now have to decide whether to accept Oracle support (along with the Oracle VM) or continue to run on the competitor’s product with support from Oracle. Oracle customers who already run on Xen will find the switch to Oracle VM easier, of course.

Oracle says it has 9,000 developers at work on its software products, including Linux, and points out that Red Hat’s total employees amount to only 2,000. Oracle needs all its software skills to track Red Hat as closely as possible. Red Hat is upping the ante by announcing that in 2008 it will offer software vendors the Red Hat Appliance Operating System. Applications can be written to this layer to produce a software appliance that will run on any Red Hat system, physical or virtual, no matter where it is located.

Linux has accelerated virtualization
The Age of Virtualization is upon us, and I don’t believe we would have gotten this far this fast without open source software. Virtualization and VMware originated on mainframes, and when IBM finally “got it,” it used Linux to revive a company that was sinking slowly into the past. By adopting Linux, it came up with an OS that could be used on all of its hardware. And by applying its mainframe know-how, it came up with such marvels as the mainframe that could configure itself to be multiple-server instances by day, then turn back into a mainframe at night (for order taking and order batch-processing, respectively) or any combination of mainframe and servers). Moving client/server over to mainframe virtualization eventually gave way to cloud computing. Combined with grid computing, servers and applications are now thought of as “somewhere out there” in a virtual space. Because IBM made these improvements to Linux, the code was fed back into the Linux kernel, which was meanwhile being improved from the other direction (such as hundreds of servers being linked to form a mainframe). The invisible hand of the free market supplied a wealth of code that could be freely downloaded and reworked for anyone’s use.

All this happened in a world in which the dominant computer systems in businesses were desktops that eventually (with the help of open source BSD code) managed to form networks. They used one type of processor design (Intel) and one brand of operating system (Windows). VMware caught the eye of open source developers not only because it allowed network technicians to design, build and test networks while using only a single box, but because it took on the problem of how to use both Linux and Windows on a single box without rebooting.

This achievement rattled the windows in the Wintel offices. A few years earlier, Netscape boasted prematurely about its plans to build a platform that would be OS-independent and died as a result. And IT departments, tired of having to do separate installs for each Windows box, admired the way Linux could be shot over the wire to an unconfigured machine. This was an early virtualization concept that looked ahead to a world we may yet enter, one where the end user’s processor and software may be something other than Wintel. Porting apps would be less necessary if they were written to a layer high enough above the operating system(s).

Long ago, IBM and Apple had a joint venture to develop such a layer. The plan was to use layers to effectively virtualize operating systems and processors. Taligent collapsed from the weight of its own ambitious plans, but we are a lot closer to its goal. Now even Microsoft is getting into virtualization, competing with Red Hat and Oracle to build virtual data centers that most effectively use resources in real time.

Now that the open source Xen project has taken on some of the functions of VMware, what will become of this proprietary product that had so much to do with the current virtualization surge? It is difficult in an expanding market to say that VMware’s sales will drop, for it is already giving away the low-end server version of their product. Because it handles many more operating systems and does more things than Xen, VMware will survive in a specialized marketplace. The question is, will Xen push down VMware prices? Or, as with the move from CentOS to RHEL, will Xen’s position at the low end of the market serve to support a high price for VMware?

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