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Xen grows up with SMP server slicer

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The story is pretty familiar. Software start-up begins selling product for running numerous operating systems on a single server. Big server vendors back the product. Large companies pick up product for use in their data centers.

That's the simplistic version of how VMware - now a subsidiary of EMC - came into being. It's also the story developing for the open source Xen package and the start-up behind it XenSource. In August, XenSource plans to release Version 3.0 of its partitioning software and, in so doing, put a lot more pressure on its established rival.

Similar to VMware, XenSource has the likes of IBM, HP, AMD and Intel behind it. Unlike VMware, however, the open source nature of Xen has made it possible for the package quickly to stretch beyond its x86 roots and past basic one, two and four processor servers all the way up to massive SMP machines.

"This is not like some other open source projects where most of the contributions come from individuals working in their spare time," Simon Crosby, a vice president at XenSource, told El Reg. "AMD, Intel, HP, Novell, Red Hat, Veritas and NetApp all have decent sized teams working on and thinking about Xen."

The end result of this shared interest in the software will see Version 3.0 ship as a much more mature product than its predecessor, especially from a corporate use point of view.

First off, the new software will let customers dedicate a number of processors to a single guest operating system. This means that you could buy a 16-way Xeon server and split it up to run four copies of Linux with different applications on each OS and with four processors dedicated to each partition. Such a set up could be of value to a company looking to run a demanding database, ERP app, CRM app and application server all on the same machine. VMware today only supports up to two processors per virtual machine and will hit four processor support by year end.

One-way and two-way servers dominate the x86 market but having true SMP support gives XenSource and its server selling partners a chance to talk to large companies about possibly moving their software off of Unix systems.

XenSource is also proud of the fact that Version 3.0 will support the VT (virtualization technology) being built into Intel's future chips. The VT technology will be hard-wried into desktop and Itanium server chips from Intel later this year and in Xeon chips by 2006. It should make products from both VMware and XenSource and software in partitions run more smoothly than in the past. Xen support for similar technology from AMD will arrive in a later update.

"The VT technology will also allow us to support unmodified guest operating systems and any legacy OS," Crosby said. "If you have an old code base which is stable, you won't have to change it, so you can move that version of Linux and its applications right over to (a Xen partition)."

Version 3.0 will also have support for x86-64-bit chips from both Intel and AMD and be able to tap into systems with the larger amounts of memory available with servers based on these chips.

Away from the new rev of Xen, the big boys are working hard to tweak the software for their respective processors and operating systems. HP, for example, is working on Xen for Intel's Itanic, while IBM is prepping Xen for its Power processors. Sun Microsystems also has a team cranking away on Xen for its Solaris x86 operating system. And, last but certainly not least, a version of Xen that supports Microsoft Windows should arrive by year end. That release would put XenSource on much more equal footing with VMware.

XenSource knows it has a long way to go to compete with VMware in corporate accounts.

"They are growing very fast and have done a fantastic job in terms of their technology," Crosby said.

The start-up, however, believes it may well have the better long-term approach by creating a thinner, more efficient product. Version 3.0 of Xen trims the product down to about 30,000 lines of code from 50,000 lines. In addition, XenSource maintains that its software eats up just two to three per cent of a server's processing load compared to 35 per cent with VMware, Crosby said. Xen is also, er, free versus VMware, which can cost thousands of dollars per processor.

"We are trying to create a big pie and then take a slice of that pie," Crosby said.

XenSource looks to sell tools for its software once (if) the Xen product becomes more established. The company, for example, plans to put out some cluster management software later this year.

VMware and Microsoft, which also has a low-end partitioning product for Windows, will certainly keep a close eye on this open source competitor. Like any start-up, XenSource must turn buzz into sales while advancing its product at a quick clip. That's never an easy task and even less so in the highly competitive, demanding server market. ®

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