VMware tries to expand throughout the data center

VMware will ship new products next year to extend virtualization from servers to storage and network gear, it said Monday.

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.

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