The Way of Xen

Steve Hamm

Here's an odd twist. Microsoft, the whale of software, is being bedeviled by a small fish, VMware, the pioneer of virtualization technology for PCs and PC servers. But, in turn, VMware faces a challenge from an even smaller fish--Xen, the open-source server virtualization package. Xen is a guppy that could grow up to be a shark.

It's being built into the Linux and NetBSD open-source operating systems, and tech suppliers including Hewlett-Packard, AMD, Novell, and Red Hat are behind it. This is yet another example of how the foundations of corporate computing are being rebuilt with open-source bricks.

Xen was developed as an open-source project started in 2001 by a crew of University of Cambridge researchers. For the computer geeks among you, here's a scholarly paper they wrote on Xen. The software allows corporate techies to chop up a PC server running Linux into a bunch of virtual servers running different applications so they can make more efficient use of their hardware. It also allows applications to be moved from one server to another without stopping. While VMware supports Linux and Windows, Xen sticks to Linux.

Rather than basking in open-source glory, several of the Xen creators have co-founded a company, XenSource, to capitalize of their invention. Ian Pratt, the leader of the Xen project, is XenSource's XenMaster. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds cool.

XenSource is only 6 months old, but it has a handful of Wall Street firms using beta versions of its software. It distributes Xen for free, but will sell its own proprietary system management products--to be delivered before the end of the year. "We see a lot of pull for Xen in the utility data center," says Simon Crosby, XenSource's vp of marketing.

Venture capitalists anticipate a lot of pull for XenSource, too. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sevin Rosen Funds put $6 million into the company a few months back.

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