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Virtual machine and paravirtualization services

Open up any technology news publication these days and you'll see a startling number of articles talking about the exploding popularity of virtual computing. One particular flavor of virtualization, called paravirtualization (PV),

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is also beginning to draw a fair share of attention, both as a technology and as an opportunity for resellers.

PV works a little differently from regular virtual-computing systems like VMware or Microsoft Virtual Server: Instead of creating virtual computers with arbitrary hardware configurations, it allows a given machine's hardware to be simultaneously shared by multiple operating systems through a virtual machine. While this doesn't quite allow for some of the flexibility possible with conventional VMs, it runs with far less overhead and enables much more efficient use of the hardware by the paravirtualized operating systems. With newer processor configurations, PV solutions can work with any existing OS without modifications.

Potential paravirtualization customers

Once upon a time, virtualization was entirely a niche market -- but as it has grown more mature, and thoroughly explored, it's become widely accepted as one of many powerful ways to accomplish a number of key IT tasks, such as server consolidation, testing and deployment, and reprovisioning of hardware. As far as reseller customers go, the potential market can be divided roughly three distinct ways:

  • Conventional corporate clients: IT managers who understand how useful virtualization will be in their organizations will be interested but want to avoid difficulties with installation and implementation. They want a product that does its job with minimal hassle.

  • Turnkey solution users: This includes ISPs and hosting companies -- people who are using virtualization directly in a reseller context, and want to not only get the virtualized machines up and running but configure and provision the resulting systems en masse as painlessly as possible. Here the emphasis is on manageability.

  • Developers: This is anyone who is writing, producing or testing virtualization solutions (or products that work with them). Again, anything that can make their lives easier and reduce unnecessary steps will be welcome, but anything that can give them the most fine-grained control and details possible is going to be even handier.

    There's no end to the overlap among any of these categories or their sizes. Some developers may work in a company with 100 people or a shop of five. No matter what the target market is PV must simply -- work.

    Jon Bara, Vice-President of Marking at XenSource, put it this way: "Customers will seek virtualization solutions that are high performance and feature rich, yet are easy to use and install, and fit within their existing management paradigms with management apps from leaders like IBM, Hewlett-Packard and so on. Customers want virtualization to 'just be there' as a feature of every server."

Paravirtualization integration options

There are several ways PV can be delivered to an end user, and that's where a number of opportunities present themselves to a reseller or channel vendor:

  • PV as a standalone platform: A PV solution can be sold as a platform on top of which a set of arbitrary operating systems can be run. In a sense, it's a little like a computer vendor offering a system with no OS at all: If you already have something you plan to run on it, or you're going to purchase the OS separately anyway, it makes sense not to buy the machine with an OS preloaded. Likewise, a system with a PV platform can be loaded by the end user with any number of OS configurations at their discretion.

    Such a configuration could be sold as a PV "starter kit", a way to potentially migrate existing OS installations from other machines, or as a platform onto which to start anew. An experienced user, or someone who simply wants to do things as freely and independently as possible, could elect to do this, and have a PV solution simply preinstalled as a timesaver.

    A system sold in such a fashion could benefit from bundling as many well-integrated, OS-independent tools as possible to make the migration process seamless, whether written by third parties or developed natively. One good parallel example of this is Dell's OpenManage CD, bundled with (among other offerings) their PowerEdge servers. When booted, the server allows the user to choose a number of supported OS configurations, accepts the installation media for those OSes, automatically configures any hardware-specific drivers, performs disk partitioning and installs the OS in a "hands-off" fashion. Any tools to make similar jobs easier for PV users would be good ideas, provided they don't interfere with any tools already provided by the PV creators themselves.

  • PV as an embedded solution: The term "embedded solution" as it's used here isn't the same thing as an embedded OS in a piece of standalone hardware. Here, it's meant to describe PV as embedded in a given host operating system.

    For instance, Novell's SLES 10 Linux has the PV solution Xen embedded within it: You can install SLES 10 on a computer, then paravirtualize other operating systems through it. To that end, it would be possible to bundle SLES 10 as a paravirtualization solution, perhaps also with additional OSes pre-installed at the customer's request.

    Another option to consider providing is a support option to allow guided migration -- to have a support technician aid or perform the migration of existing physical machines into virtualized environments (i.e., a "P2V" migration). This could be done as part of an existing support package, although customers would probably want the option to migrate in machines not covered by any existing support plan. Such migrations could be covered at an additional per-machine cost, or could be purchased for a flat fee over a given period of time (i.e., up to 50 computers in a year, or six months with no limits).

Existing paravirtualization partnerships

Two of the PV solutions out there have options that are highly attractive to resellers. One is XenEnterprise, a commercial distribution of the Xen PV package. Xen is probably the most broadly-recognized and supported PV system out there, both in its free implementation and in its commercial versions. Among other perks, XenEnterprise comes with its own set of P2V migration tools, so a vendor who elects to use this as their PV system of choice can simply work with the existing toolset instead of having to roll their own. The company that makes XenEnterprise, XenSource, also offers a partners program that allows resellers to identify themselves as offering XenEnterprise solutions.

Another solution that is not itself a paravirtualization solution -- it uses a different technology -- but is meant to play in much the same space is Virtual Iron, available in a number of different implementations (and in a free trial edition as well). The Virtual Iron Channel One Reseller Partners program allows resellers to work closely with the company to create jointly-branded solutions

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!

This was first published in November 2006

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