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Citrix XenServer 5.5 cleared for June landing

Encircling vSphere

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

VMware and Citrix seem to be in a match to see who can talk most about products that are not yet shipping.

Citrix tried to spoil VMware's vSphere launch when it announced its partnership with Microsoft and its radically reduced pricing for the XenServer stack back on February 23. That was the day before VMworld Europe started, when VMware wasn't saying all that much about vSphere, and also the same day that commercial Linux distributor Red Hat said it was going to create its own free-standing virtualization products based on the KVM hypervisor it controls and that has been mainstreamed into the Linux kernel.

About two weeks later, VMware's chief executive officer, Paul Maritz, gave the first big vSphere presentation, in this case at EMC's security analyst conference, detailing how vSphere was going to create what Maritz called the software mainframe of the 21st century. VMware actually got around to announcing vSphere formally on April 21, including pricing and packaging, but thus far, it has been a bit vague about the ship date, other than it will come out by the end of the second quarter.

What a coincidence, then, that Citrix is telling customers and partners this week attending its Synergy event in Las Vegas that the Essentials virtualization stack for its own XenServer 5.5 hypervisor (called Citrix Essentials for XenServer) as well as for Microsoft's Hyper-V (the same management tools with a different hypervisor) will begin shipping on June 19. That's pretty close to the end of the second quarter and probably right around when VMware wants to get the ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor and the vSphere 4.0 tool stack for it out the door.

Until then, Citrix is offering a beta version of the XenServer 5.5 and the Essentials tools, although the company also said there was a 30-day trial available. This is odd since there isn't production code yet, and you'd expect a 30-day trial after the product ships and the beta program is over.

That June 19 ship date takes a little pressure off of VMware, which is expecting second quarter sales to be flat or down as the economy is hurting and many customers are awaiting vSphere availability to make their server virtualization purchases. In the first quarter, VMware's product license sales fell by 13 per cent to $257m, and the quarter was only saved because VMware's services revenues rose by a stunning 48 per cent to $213.3m. The company has 130,000 customers worldwide, many of them using its Workstation and related PC virtualization products, but probably a few tens of thousand are using its server products, which account for the bulk of its money.

Thus far, Citrix has not been able to bring much economic pressure to bear on VMware. In its first quarter, Citrix might have seen 150 per cent growth for its combined XenServer and XenDesktop platform virtualization technologies, but total sales came to a mere $7m. (Citrix claims to have 5,000 customers using its commercialized Xen hypervisor tools for servers and virtual PCs). Citrix is into virtualization for the long haul, has a slightly profitable business despite the downturn and has $905m in cash to carefully position itself to take on VMware and, more importantly, use Microsoft's marketing muscle to help soften up its rival.

Earlier this week at the Synergy event, Citrix put its NetScaler Web application caching program into a XenServer virtual machine and introduced a new self-service interface called Dazzle for IT applications served up by Citrix' various systems software from servers to various kinds of clients. Company execs also talked briefly about the dynamic workload balancing add-on for its XenMotion live migration hypervisor, which allows for policy-based workload migration around a pool of servers to minimize power usage, increase application throughput, or shuffle workloads for other reasons based on policies set up by system administrators and their IT manager bosses.

We have previously reported on the VM stage management and StorageLink features of the XenServer 5.5 stack, the first of which controls how VMs are created, deployed, and retired and the latter of which allows XenServer to hook into the special snap-shooting, replication, and clustering functions of advanced storage arrays to make use of those features on behalf of VMs running on servers attached to the storage.

Citrix also added some other features to the beta of the XenServer 5.5 hypervisor this week, including integration with Microsoft's Active Directory authentication services for Windows servers, which is a must-have obviously for the Citrix Essentials stack for Hyper-V and, given that many Linux and Unix shops use Active Directory for authentication, logging, and auditing of users, for the non-Windows variant as well. Citrix has also added XenConvert to the beta of the product, which allows for virtual machines created using VMware's VMDK format to be converted into the VHD format used by Xen and Hyper-V as well as to convert any of these formats into other formats, such as OVF for VMs and OVA and XVA for virtual appliances.

Citrix also said that Novell's recently announced SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5.3, and Debian 5.0 are now supported as guest operating systems in the XenServer 5.5 beta. (The CentOS and Oracle clones of RHEL 5.3 will also run as guests).

Given the lower pricing and expanded feature set that Citrix has created for XenServer 5.5, plus some marketing muscle from Microsoft on the Essentials tools, the company is now telling customers that "production activations of XenServer are on pace to increase more than tenfold over last year." If it wants to compete with VMware, and if the server virtualization wave is as big as so many people believe, the wonder is that it is not on track for a 20, 30, or 40-fold increase. That is what Citrix needs to see if it wants to generate the kinds of sales that VMware is doing today. Which is why Citrix has partnered with Microsoft and hitched its fortunes to Hyper-V every bit as much - and perhaps more, knowing the history of Citrix - as to XenServer.

What has not yet appeared in the XenServer 5.5 beta is the XenServer virtual switch - a capability similar to that which VMware has cooked up for its vSphere 4.0 virtualization stack. This virtual switch, which is literally the software that normally resides in a physical switch that is virtualized and run inside of a virtual machine and, more importantly, is VM-aware (not to be confused with VMware) and virtualizes the network links between VMs and the physical network interfaces they link to on specific servers.

(This is necessary so when a VM live migrates around a pool of machines, its network assignments and security settings follow it around the pool. Right now, if you live migrate, you have to re-establish the network links. Stupid, right?)

Anyway, the XenServer virtual switch will be a core property of XenServer hypervisor (not an add-on feature that is only available in the top-end distribution for extra bucks, as it is in vSphere) and will debut in the third quarter. ®

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