Virtual appliances: Slow on the uptake

The idea -- and benefits of -- virtual appliances seem straightforward enough, but IT execs have been slow to adopt the technology.

In the virtual appliance model, developers package applications with an operating system to run as either a hardware or software appliance. "The value proposition is so clear cut from vendor and customer perspectives. We build, you install, it works," says Bernard Golden, CEO of HyperStratus, an advanced IT consulting firm. "I thought virtual appliances would be a big deal, taking off really fast, but they haven't."

Chris Wolf, a senior Burton Group analyst, has one explanation. "Some vendors want to hold on to their physical appliances as long as they can because they get very high margins on them," he says. But enterprises are starting to demand their appliances as virtual machines. "They get the technology plus the mobility benefit of virtualization," he says.

Jim Metzler, vice president of IT consulting firm Ashton, Metzler & Associates, agrees. "I'm somewhat enthusiastic about virtual appliances. IT shops don't really want a bunch of boxes around," he says.

WAN optimization vendors and security companies are in the forefront of the virtual appliance movement, says Metzler, who also co-writes Network World's Wide Area Networking newsletter. Within recent months, Citrix Systems has announced the NetScaler Virtual Appliance for application delivery control, and SourceFire has previewed the Sourcefire 3D System 4.9 virtual intrusion-prevention-system appliance, for example.

"Vendors that are late to the game here or trying to dismiss virtual appliances are in trouble," Wolf says.

Virtual appliance activity also is bubbling up on the software side of IT. Earlier this year, Novell announced a collaboration with VMware to help software vendors build SUSE Linux Enterprise-based virtual appliances. And just last month, Bitrock, a provider of cross-platform deployment tools and services, released 30 open source application stacks as SUSE-based virtual appliances. CRM, enterprise content management and bug-tracking are among the application types now available in appliance form.

Software provider Adobe Systems has definitely seen an uptick in requests for virtual appliances, says Marcel Boucher, senior manager of technical marketing at the company.

In July, Adobe made available a LiveCycle Evaluation Virtual Appliance for download. The appliance is essentially a VMware VM containing the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server operating system, a JDK, a J2EE application server, a database management system, and Adobe's LiveCycle ES 8.2.1 SP1 evaluation version, Boucher describes. The goal, he says, is to lower the barriers for people who want to evaluate enterprise software.

As great as these plug-and-play solutions can be, Boucher says users do need to be careful about file size. "A virtual appliance package can get pretty large, so being able to manage that closely is important."

Likewise when vendors turn the physical into the virtual, Metzler warns. "You need to know how to manage and secure these, and how they're going to perform."

Schultz is a freelance IT writer in Chicago. You can reach her at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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