VMWare's ESX Server 3i Makes Preemptive Strike

Analysts see VMWare’s ESX Server 3i as a preemptive strike against Microsoft and other would-be x86 virtualization players

x86 virtualization specialist VMWare Inc. fired a preemptive shot across Microsoft Corp.’s bow earlier this month when it announced a new, lightweight version of its ESX Server virtualization technology. VMWare’s new “bare metal” hypervisor requires a fraction of the footprint of its bread-and-butter ESX Server products, and—crucially—installs in a much smaller footprint than Microsoft’s hugely-anticipated Windows Server Virtualization (code-named “Viridian”) technology. Analysts see it as a clear warning notice to Microsoft and other would-be x86 virtualization contenders.

The new VMware ESX Server 3i installs in just 32 MB (at least 2 GB is required by its predecessor). This helps make 3i a much more attractive option for OEMs that want to deliver hardware solutions with built-in hypervisor support. What’s more, it gives VMWare a bona-fide leg-up in the highly competitive x86 virtualization segment: at this point, analysts say, it's the only hypervisor that isn't based on a general-purpose operating system. VMWare's vanilla ESX Server product, for example, uses a Linux-based service console and requires at least 2 GB of resources; Microsoft’s Viridian technology uses Windows Server 2008 as its host operating environment.

“The idea is that you’d buy a server with 3i sitting somewhere on a flash memory card or a USB key. Booting the server for the first time would then kick off a menu-driven configuration process that would end up with an installed [virtual machine manager]—i.e., a state more or less equivalent to where they’d be had they installed ESX Server,” explains Gordon Haff, principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata.

“The main difference is that the new 3i product will be primarily managed through a remote interface, rather than locally with the Linux-based service console used by ESX Server today.”

Simplifying Virtualization

VMWare officials waxed triumphantly about the new release. "Customers will be able to turn on their virtualization-enabled servers and boot directly into a fully-functioning hypervisor," said Raghu Raghuram, VMWare's vice-president of products and solutions, in a statement. "We expect this advance to simplify virtualization and make it more easily accessible to customers as they refresh their computing infrastructure. As multi-core systems become more common, virtualization will no longer be viewed as an optional capability by customers."

Analysts think VMWare's new ESX Server 3i release will generate lots of interest among OEMs, although no vendors have yet announced any actual products. Nor is VMWare the only player to tout an embedded hypervisor: Citrix Systems Inc. recently announced an integrated hypervisor of its own, based on technology it acquired from the former XenSource.

Illuminata’s Haff says the concept of embedded hypervisors—in and of itself—isn’t all that interesting, but package an embedded hypervisor as part of a complete OEM server configuration and you have a much more interesting proposition. “As a standalone product install, the difference between installing a VMM from flash and from CD doesn’t amount to much,” he concedes. “It gets far more interesting when the embedded VMM is delivered as part of a validated and certified server configuration from the factory—which could greatly simplify the whole installation process.”

Industry seer Gartner Inc. expects no less than three OEMs will announce 3i-based offerings by the end of next month. OEM interest seems to be a given: this summer, Dell Computer Corp. announced its own embedded hypervisor strategy (“Project Hybrid”), and IBM Corp. recently announced plans to deliver an embedded hypervisor in its forthcoming X4 systems.

When it comes to pricing, the researcher says, ESX Server 3i should help offset the advantage Microsoft derives by offering WSV for free with Windows Server. “[A]n OEM-supplied copy of 3i will either be included in the hypervisor or priced quite low. VMware also will likely provide a low-priced downloadable version. This will enable VMware to expand the virtualization market and become established in more accounts, helping to eliminate the differentiator Microsoft would have by including Viridian ‘for free’ with Longhorn,” write Gartner analysts Tom Bittman, Philip Dawson, and George Weiss in a recent research note.

Getting a Taste of Virtualization

ESX Server 3i doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. VMWare markets a support and management ecosystem, dubbed VMWare Infrastructure 3 suite, which provides virtual infrastructure capabilities for workload and resource management, as well as data protection. The Gartner trio anticipates that once many users have gotten a taste of this offering—which VMWare plans to include as a free trial with the base ESX Server 3i release—they’ll eventually buy it. Translation: even more revenue for VMWare.

Elsewhere, Bittman, Dawson, and Weiss suggest, there’s a lot to like in ESX Server 3i’s much smaller form factor, which should make it a considerably more secure product, too.

“At least half of the ESX Server patches were for the service console and thus required Linux skills. By eliminating the console, VMware has improved ease of management, reduced patch volume, and significantly reduced the attack surface and potential for stability problems,” they argue.

Add it all up, the Gartner trio suggests, and you have a preemptive strike of sorts against Microsoft and Windows Server 2008: “We see this as a strategic move prior to the release of Microsoft's hypervisor, code-named Viridian, which requires a parent operating system running a minimum of Longhorn Server Core [i.e., Windows Server 2008] … [with] a footprint of 1GB to 1.5GB.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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