It began with an engineer, some code and a blog post. Less than a week later, buzz has grown about whether a string of commands buried in VMware's vSphere 4.1 release indicates plans by the company to support management of hypervisors other than its own ESXi hypervisor.
According to the Oct. 31 blog post by William Lam, a systems engineer and vExpert, some of the VMX configuration files released in vSphere 4.1 include strings of code that appear able to detect whether Hyper-V or Xen "guest hypervisors" are present. "Is this a hint that VMware is going to support other virtual hypervisors, specifically Microsoft and Xen?" Lam wondered in the post.
Lam did not respond to requests for further comment as of press time, but since his post was published, other industry watchers have begun placing bets on the likely answer to his question.
VMware competitive landscape in flux
In the server virtualisation market's hypervisor death match within high-end enterprise and cloud computing markets, comprehensive management is the latest competitive frontier. Companies -- from the Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. and its direct competitors to traditional data centre management players such as Hewlett-Packard, CA and BMC Software -- have begun to cobble together automated cloud management software suites with support for mixed, multi-tenant environments that encompass multiple operating systems, hypervisors, application frameworks, and physical and virtual components.
An expansion of management to allow heterogeneous hypervisors would match VMware's larger strategy.
The trend has some industry insiders believing Lam's discovery is a signal that VMware plans to move from focusing strictly on its own hypervisor and toward the overall virtual data centre management space. The expansion of management to allow heterogeneous hypervisors would match the company's portfolio diversification and the recent launch of vCloud Director for higher-level management, market observers say.
"We know for a fact that it is VMware's strategy to be the layer of software that talks to the whole data centre," said Bernd Harzog, a senior analyst at the Virtualisation Practice." If they were to [manage multiple hypervisors], it would be consistent with that strategy."
ESXi can be used for nested virtualisation, in which a hypervisor virtualises other hypervisors, which in turn virtualise their own VMs. So far, there have been few use cases for this approach, especially not in production. But Harzog said he can envision VMware's hypervisor serving as the "bottom layer" of a stack of virtualised, heterogeneous hypervisors. "It's a huge outstanding issue in this industry: How is systems management going to be done?" Harzog said. "My hypothesis is that it's much easier for VMware to sneak a layer of software in under everything else."
Heterogeneous management could appeal to SMBs
Even VMware acknowledges that most of today's overall hypervisor growth occurs at the low end of the market, where Microsoft is well entrenched in IT shops. There, Microsoft's Hyper-V can compete aggressively with VMware on price, Citrix Systems Inc. is also a familiar name, and VMware's message that it has the most advanced features often falls on deaf ears.
Entering into this landscape, new virtualisation users have increasingly adopted heterogeneous, tiered-hypervisor environments according to how server virtualisation offerings match their applications. An increasing proportion of users, for example, run Citrix XenServer alongside VMware because of XenServer's support for virtual desktop infrastructure with XenApp and XenDesktop. Others use a combination of all three major hypervisors in tiered configuration according to licensing cost and criticality of application. They install the free Hyper-V for test and development and use VMware's advanced High Availability and Fault Tolerance features only for the most critical workloads.
If these smaller businesses that represent the bulk of new virtualisation customers see the pricier VMware as the tier-one rather than the sole hypervisor, comprehensive virtualisation management might become more important than hypervisor features to capture their business. Microsoft has already taken this tack with System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), which can manage VMware as well as Hyper-V VMs.
"We're talking to so many companies that see all this white space between multiple vendors, and management in general is tough," said Wikibon blog analyst Stu Miniman. "So the company that can deliver heterogeneous management can really make some hay -- and VMware's made no bones about wanting to move beyond the hypervisor space."
Skeptics: one string of code can go many ways
The potential signal that Lam has uncovered is tantalising, but skeptics see it as unlikely that VMware is planning a full-blown hypervisor-agnostic management platform, and they note that the code string could mean any number of things.
It's easier to convert than to manage multiple native environments together.
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Without more context, said Illuminata Inc. analyst Jonathan Eunice , the code string's ultimate meaning remains uncertain. "The discovered configuration parameters are quite interesting, but there's no guarantee that any given one is actually in use, or does anything useful," he said.
The code could be there for more mundane reasons, experts said. Alternate possibilities: VMware might want to make its VMX file an industry standard for defining the parameters of a VM; or VMware has also experimented with a new live migration/ hypervisor conversion offering.
Some enterprise users that are already standardised on VMware don't see much value in adding heterogeneous management. But they do see the logic of having a new means of converting and live-migrating VMs between hypervisors.
"It's easier to convert than to manage multiple native environments together," said Eric Siebert, a senior systems administrator at Boston Market Corp., who "seriously doubts" VMware will move away from focusing on its own products. "VCloud Director needs a lot more work -- it seems the priority [for VMware] would be [its] own cloud platform rather than the other cloud platforms that are out there."
Wesley Baker, infrastructure engineer for the retailer Jewelry Television and a vSphere user, also said heterogeneous hypervisor support wouldn't have much impact on his environment. "I run VMware because it's been around so long and because we have a lot at stake in our environment, being regulated by [Payment Card Industry security standards]," he said. Multiple hypervisors would also be a turn-off, he said, because "I also don't want to have to figure out whose throat to go choke."
VMware did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com. Write to her at email@example.com.