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Bare-metal desktop hypervisors: A primer

Client virtualization holds long-term potential but is in its infancy

By , Network World
July 22, 2010 02:36 PM ET

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How mature is the technology today?

"It's not robust at all," says IDC system and virtualization analyst Ian Song. "I guess that's the short answer. The long answer would depend on your specific use case. It's really a very niche technology at this point."

Song believes the most mature product on the market today is Virtual Computer's NxTop, a Xen-based bare-metal hypervisor that is integrated with an extensive set of management tools.

Song and other analysts agree that the early Type 1 hypervisors are not as robust as the Type 2 hypervisors, but he says bare-metal could become the tool of choice for client virtualization scenarios within 12-18 months. A similar progression was seen on the server front, in which the market has shifted from Type 2 to Type 1 hypervisors.

Citrix and VMware are both looking to shift the bare-metal market into high gear, but VMware has acknowledged that building a client hypervisor is "not an easy computer science problem to solve."  

Compatibility with PC hardware is one issue. But the problems could be more on the business than the technical side, Wolf says.

Convincing OEM vendors like HP, Dell and Lenovo to ship a device with a bare-metal client hypervisor pre-installed is tricky because of the vendors' relationships with Microsoft, he says. "If I'm adding another layer of software, Microsoft  is going to ask OEMs to recertify for Windows 7," Wolf says.

Citrix has a tight partnership with Microsoft and may therefore find this process to be a bit less daunting than VMware, which has a somewhat antagonistic rivalry with Microsoft.

Even for Citrix, Wolf says shipping a bare-metal hypervisor with PCs probably won't happen until the first quarter of next year. "If VMware doesn't even have a product in beta by that point, you would have to say VMware is at least a year behind," Wolf says.

While Virtual Computer and Neocleus have promising technology, they are still in the early stages. Virtual Computer's hypervisor today works only in conjunction with the company's management tools, which require customers to install Microsoft's Hyper-V server virtualization platform. Virtual Computer will include a standalone hypervisor in its next release in September, it says.

Neocleus, meanwhile, struck a licensing agreement with management vendor BigFix in March, but BigFix's recent acquisition by IBM could make customers doubt the long-term viability of that arrangement.

What are the benefits of bare-metal hypervisors?

Virtual Computer marketing director Doug Lane argues that, with the right management tools, client hypervisors will deliver the same benefits as server-hosted desktops without requiring major data center upgrades.

"You're not going to save money by replacing PCs with servers," Lane says. Client hypervisors "can deliver the same benefits without turning the whole PC model on its head."

Like VDI, client hypervisors can be coupled with management tools that make it easier to distribute patches and updates, and replace an employee's desktop in the event that it gets lost or damaged. Plus, running the desktop locally eliminates performance lags caused by latency and allows more offline access. Once the technology is more mature, Type 1 desktop hypervisors should allow faster performance than Type 2, because running a hypervisor on top of a host operating system creates another layer of overhead.

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