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The fact that VMware's first ever product, VMware Workstation, was based on Linux has meant that the company has always been very Linux-friendly. In fact, many argue that VMware's re-invention of the virtualisation market -- it was started by IBM in the mid-1960s when the technology starred in Big Blue's 704 mainframe -- is a major factor in Linux' popularity right now. But for how much longer can this relationship last?

VMware's director of data centre products Patrick Lin says that the resurgence of virtualisation has meant that it's been possible for people easily to try out Linux without too much risk. Using the company's VMware Server product -- now free -- potential users can check out how their applications run with little performance penalty, as well as investigate possible clashes with other applications.

Lin reckons that the advantage of this approach is redoubled as a result of the number of Linux variants. With so many distros to choose from, it means that developers and IT managers can check out the right one for their precise needs pretty easily. It also means that they can standardise their hardware without having to do the same with applications -- there's a tension between the desire to standardise and the need for new, more advanced functionality.

Additionally, the ability to package such VMs as appliances and allows managers to focus on the applications rather than the OS -- which is after all the important issue. And with a number of companies successfully developing and selling Linux-based hardware appliances, it's clear, according to Lin, that this approach has merit.

There's wealth of recent events to support this view of VMware and Linux in particular, and the open source movement in general, growing closer -- with one exception. Xen has been in the headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons, in recent weeks.

It forged a tie-up with Novell that saw the red box company shipping developer XenSource's para-virtualisation system with the latest version of SuSE, version 10.

So far so good. But Red Hat, which has on a number of occasions said that it would be shipping Xen with flagship OS Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- it's already in the community/developer edition Fedora Core 5 -- made a volte-face and said that Xen wasn't yet stable enough for enterprise use. It left Novell and Red Hat at loggerheads. VMware wasn't too pleased either.

Was it a coincidence that XenSource had not that long previously agreed a code-sharing deal with Microsoft that could see Microsoft code appearing in Xen, with the aim of allowing Xen to access Microsoft's virtual server images? I think not. How that squares with the open ethos of the General Purpose License (GPL), under which Xen has been developed, remains to be seen.

It seems unlikely that Microsoft will allow its code to be opened -- although stranger things have happened. It's a stopgap from Microsoft's point of view which it hopes will deter users from defecting to VMware simply because VMware has working product out there right now -- which Microsoft does not.

But the moves all go towards polarising the virtualisation market: on the one side sit Novell, Red Hat, IBM, VMware, OpenVZ and Xen, all of whom offer support for, or actively develop under, the open source GPL. On the other sit those who largely believe in closed, proprietary code: Microsoft. And Xen, which doesn't.

In the middle squat Intel, AMD and others who attach more or less importance to the open source ethos, according to the marketing value they attach to it. In AMD's case, it's quite a lot, for Intel, it's not much.

The upshot is that VMware and Linux are destined to be pushed closer together. And while VMware sits in the virtualisation driving seat, it's likely to remain so. But when Microsoft comes galloping up from behind, all out of breath but moving quickly, VMware might have to rethink its list of friends. The ghastly word co-opetition -- which most accept now drives the IT industry -- means that the two will have to work together to deliver solutions that customers actually have to buy and implement.

Fortunately for VMware, most estimates put that moment some two or three years hence. But come that moment, VMware will need all the magnanimity it can muster.