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Dell to stuff hypervisors in flash memory

Vendor on ESX Lite diet?

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LinuxWorld A rather nimble Dell looks set to rattle the server market later this year by embedding the core virtualization code of a prominent software maker in flash memory.

Dell CTO Kevin Kettler today confirmed these plans during a speech here at LinuxWorld, saying the company expects to see major performance and power-saving improvements by dumping a hypervisor in flash. Customers will basically "boot to a virtual machine-ready" state, he said. Dell's agenda here could have dramatic ramifications on software pricing in the virtualization market.

Dell remains tight on exact details, although the technology discussed by Kettler seems to match the "Project Hybrid" program dished out in May. Under Project Hybrid, Dell plans to roll out numerous systems that create tighter links between hardware and software in a kind of appliance fashion. The company has committed thus far to making virtualization and VoIP systems in this line.

It looks like the virtualization box will be the first out the door with Dell expected to ship a system with an embedded hypervisor in the Fall. Dell refuses to disclose which vendor it will partner with for the software, although VMware and XenSource appear the most likely candidates.

VMware, in fact, has been said to be working on a thin hypervisor called ESX Lite that would require only a few MB – a drastic reduction from today's bulky, multi-GB ESX Server. Dell could cut a deal with VMware to embed ESX Lite in flash at no cost to the end user, driving the inevitable push toward free, base virtualization software. (Microsoft's virtualization software and Xen are already available for free today.)

"We see a future where hypervisors are pervasive," Kettler told us in an interview. "There can't be a high cost around the technology to accomplish that."

Beyond lowering the core software cost, an embedded hypervisor could aid customers in a couple of ways. For one, Dell could ship pre-installed bundles of virtualization software and higher-end applications such as databases. The installation and boot times for such a bundle would be lowered with the flash setup to just a few minutes, according to Kettler. You could also expect to see improved security and reliability by moving away from a spinning read/write disk to read-only, solid state memory.

In addition, Kettler said Dell might ship a server with fewer hard disks, since it would not require a disk for booting. This would lead to large power savings if you start thinking about one less disk in tens or hundreds of servers.

The rumor mill suggests that Dell will launch this new box as the ESX Appliance in a 2U, two-socket form. The box has been said to have support for up to 256GB of memory, 4 integrated NICs, 4 expansion card slots and two hard drives. And we hear the system will run on AMD's four-core Barcelona chips.

While Kettler would not say who Dell will buddy up with, he did confirm that only one software maker will receive favored nation status.

"We're going to partner with one vendor initially because this is a resource intensive exercise," he said.

Dell will also start with a single system, as opposed to offering a line of virtualization boxes.

It's impressive to see Dell talking and moving in a unique direction here. The vendor seems to have made the most of its partnering approach by capturing VMware or XenSource as a close ally, while the likes of IBM, HP and Sun have said nothing about working a similar arrangement.

Of course, we'll have to see just who Dell picked as its buddy and how exclusive that relationship is before being able to judge Dell's true lead time here. ®

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