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Parallels: Bare-metal hypervisor in the works

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Parallels, one of many peddlers of desktop and server virtualization products, says that it is still hard at work on a bare-metal hypervisor for the carving up of servers.

While host-based desktop and server virtualization is acceptable for many workloads, in some cases - particularly mission-critical applications where security and reliability are paramount - companies may want a type 1, or bare-metal hypervisor, meaning one that runs directly on physical hardware and provides isolation among the operating systems running inside virtual machines.

Type 2, or hosted hypervisors are loaded atop a running operating system (usually Windows or Linux, but sometimes Mac OS as with Parallels Desktop); guest operating systems run atop the hypervisor. It's like wheels within wheels - except when the big tire goes flat, they all go flat.

Parallels has been in the server racket for many years, by virtue of its Parallels Containers virtual private server software, formerly known as Virtuozzo and formerly sold by a company called SWsoft - which we learned two years ago was owned by the same people who own Parallels.

With virtual private servers - sometimes called containers - you have a shared operating system kernel and a shared file system that supports multiple sandboxes that look and feel in regard to applications and security settings like distinct servers, even though they have been virtualized.

According to Parallels CEO Serguei Beloussov, the company is working on a type 1 hypervisor known internally as Parallels Server Bare Metal, but which will probably come to market under a different name.

The company is also working on updates to its existing Parallels Server, which now runs atop Mac OS X in its 3.01 release, and that allows a VM to span up to four cores and 64GB of memory. An eight-core version is in experimental testing.

Parallels Server allows Linux and Windows guest operating systems on top of Intel-based Apple Macs and Xserves, but the future bare-metal hypervisor will run on any x64-based server and will run Windows and Linux side-by-side in VMs, and on Apple iron run Mac OS X as well. Also, hints Beloussov, there could also be support for the x64 version of Solaris Unix. FreeBSD will also be supported, according to this roadmap (PPT) from a Parallels summit.

The future bare-metal hypervisor will support eight processor cores, 64GB of memory, 2TB disk drives with multiple drives per partition, and up to 16 virtual network interfaces per VM. Both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems will be supported within the VMs, and as was the case with the Mac version of Parallels Server, the bare-metal hypervisor will function without the Intel VT or AMD-V virtualization-assistance electronics inside most current x64 chips - but it will perform better with it, according to Beloussov.

According to the roadmap above, the new hypervisor will apparently allow for the overcommitment of CPU, memory, and disk resources to drive up utilization. The future hypervisor will also include features that will support taking snapshots of running or frozen VMs to back them up onto NAS or SAN drives. It will also have tools to convert physical servers to virtual ones, and to convert applications running in containers into ones with a full operating system running in a VM.

That latter bit will be a neat trick.

Down the road - and possibly with the launch of the bare metal hypervisor late this year - Parallels will converge its VM and container technologies into a single product that will let customers mix and match containers - which offer very fine granularity - and VMs - which offer more isolation between workloads.

This converged product will require some mixing of technology and pricing models. Right now, Parallels Containers 4.0 provides virtual private servers on x64 iron for $1,250 per socket, while Parallels Server 3.01 costs $1,000 per physical server regardless of the number of sockets.

Unlike VMware, Citrix Systems, and Microsoft, Parallels isn't inclined to give away a portion of its tools to lull people into paying money for functions vendors know full-well that companies need. This will likely be the case when the bare metal and converged products come to market this year. "We gave a look at giving away part of these product for free, but it is a trick," says Beloussov. "You can't really use the tools unless you have all the parts."

Beloussov also said something that might run a bit contrary to the virtualization gospel right now: automation matters as much as virtualization.

Parallels tools are running on somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 servers, and only 50,000 of them are using its virtualization tools - and most of that is Parallels Containers or its predecessor, Virtuozzo. The rest are just using various Parallels tools to manage distributed systems.

"Distributed applications do not need virtualization to run efficiently," says Beloussov. "For example, take Microsoft Exchange, which does not benefit from virtualization and does not require it. Or look at Salesforce.com or Google, which do not use virtualization, either." The automation of non-virtual workloads is as important as the automation of virtualized workloads, according to Beloussov.

With this in mind, Parallels is keeping its eye on cloud computing and how it will play in this space, and is bringing its automation tools to bear for both physical and virtual workloads.

Rather than going after the biggest shops, as Citrix and VMware are doing, Parallels has its sights set on small and medium businesses (SMBs). "In a cloud aimed at SMBs, you have to serve hundreds of thousands or millions of companies to be profitable - you need to have density and a high degree of automation to support tens of millions of users."

This stands in stark contrast to enterprise clouds, according to Beloussov.

There are maybe 10,000 large enterprises in the world, but they have one thing in common that's distinct from SMBs: they are more attached to their IT infrastructure and applications. SMBs don't care as much about infrastructure, and they don't have IT fiefdoms to protect - they just want access to applications.

Given that Parallels has plenty of expertise in managing server farms for ISPs, the company is hoping that a mix of automation tools and two different kinds of server virtualization schemes will give it an edge among service providers for SMBs that plan to transition themselves to cloud-computing providers in the short term. ®

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