Category Archives: Linux

HP’s Project Voyager Alights on Server Value

Hewlett-Packard earlier this week announced the HP ProLiant Generation 8 (Gen8) line of servers, based on the HP ProActive Insight architecture. The technology behind the architecture and the servers results from Project Voyager, a two-year initiative to redefine data-center economics by automating every aspect of the server lifecycle.

You can read the HP press release on the announcement, which covers all the basics, and you also can peruse coverage at a number of different media outposts online.

Voyager Follows Moonshot and Odyssey

The Project Voyager-related announcement follows Project Moonshot and Project Odyssey announcements last fall. Moonshot, you might recall, related to low-energy computing infrastructure for web-scale deployments, whereas Odyssey was all about unifying mission-critical computing — encompassing Unix and x86-based Windows and Linux servers — in one system.

A $300-million, two-year program that yielded more than 900 patents, Project Voyager’s fruits, as represented by the ProActive Insight architecture, will span the entire HP Converged Infrastructure.

Intelligence and automation are the buzzwords behind HP’s latest server push. By enabling servers to “virtually take care of themselves,” HP is looking to reduce data-center complexity and cost, while increasing system uptime and boosting compute-related innovation. In support of the announcement, HP culled assorted facts and figures to assert that savings from the new servers can be significant across various enterprise deployment scenarios.

Taking Care of Business

In taking care of its customers, of course, HP is taking care of itself. HP says it tested the ProLiant servers in more than 100 real-world data centers, and that they include more than 150 client-inspired design innovations. That process was smart, and so were the results, which not only speak to real needs of customers, but also address areas that are beyond the purview of Intel (or AMD).

The HP launch eschewed emphasis on system boards, processors, and “feeds and speeds.” While some observers wondered whether that decision was taken because Intel had yet to launch its latest Xeon chips, the truth is that HP is wise to redirect the value focus away from chip performance and toward overall system and data-center capabilities.

Quest for Sustainable Value, Advantage 

Processor performance, including speeds and feeds, is the value-added purview of Intel, not of HP. All system vendors ultimately get the same chips from Intel (or AMD). They really can’t differentiate on the processor, because the processor isn’t theirs. Any gains they get from being first to market with a new Intel processor architecture will be evanescent.

They can, however, differentiate more sustainably around and above the processor, which is what HP has done here. Certainly, a lot of value-laden differentiation has been created, as the 900 patent filings attest. In areas such as management, conservation, and automation, HP has found opportunity not only to innovate, but also to make a compelling argument that its servers bring unique benefits into customer data centers.

With margin pressure unlikely to abate in server hardware, HP needed to make the sort of commitment and substantial investment that Project Voyager represented.

Questions About Competition, Patents

From a competitive standpoint, however, two questions arise. First, how easy (or hard) will it be for HP’s system rivals to counter what HP has done, thereby mitigating HP’s edge? Second, what sort of strategy, if any, does HP have in store for its Voyager-related patent portfolio? Come to think of it, those questions — and the answers to them — might be related.

As a final aside, the gentle folks at The Register inform us that HP’s new series of servers is called the ProLiant Gen8 rather than ProLiant G8 — the immediately predecessors are called ProLiant G7 (for Generation 7) — because the sound “gee-ate” is uncomfortably similar to a slang term for “penis” in Mandarin.

Presuming that to be true, one can understand why HP made the change.

Advertisements

OVA Members Hope to Close Ground

I discussed the fast-growing Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA) in a recent post about its primary objective, which is to commoditize VMware’s daunting market advantage. In catching up on my reading, I came across an excellent piece by InformationWeek’s Charles Babcock that puts the emergence of OVA into historical perspective.

As Babcock writes, the KVM-centric OVA might not have come into existence at all if an earlier alliance supporting another open-source hypervisor hadn’t foundered first. Quoting Babcock regarding OVA’s vanguard members:

Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, AMD, Red Hat, SUSE, BMC, and CA Technologies are examples of the muscle supporting the alliance. As a matter of fact, the first five used to be big backers of the open source Xen hypervisor and Xen development project. Throw in the fact Novell was an early backer of Xen as the owner of SUSE, and you have six of the same suspects. What happened to support for Xen? For one, the company behind the project, XenSource, got acquired by Citrix. That took Xen out of the strictly open source camp and moved it several steps closer to the Microsoft camp, since Citrix and Microsoft have been close partners for over 20 years.

Xen is still open source code, but its backers found reasons (faster than you can say vMotion) to move on. The Open Virtualization Alliance still shares one thing in common with the Xen open source project. Both groups wish to slow VMware’s rapid advance.

Wary Eyes

Indeed, that is the goal. Most of the industry, with the notable exception of VMware’s parent EMC, is casting a wary eye at the virtualization juggernaut, wondering how far and wide its ambitions will extend and how they will impact the market.

As Babcock points out, however, by moving in mid race from one hypervisor horse (Xen) to another (KVM), the big backers of open-source virtualization might have surrendered insurmountable ground to VMware, and perhaps even to Microsoft. Much will depend on whether VMware abuses its market dominance, and whether Microsoft is successful with its mid-market virtualization push into its still-considerable Windows installed base.

Long Way to Go

Last but perhaps not least, KVM and the Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA) will have a say in the outcome. If OVA members wish to succeed, they’ll not only have to work exceptionally hard, but they’ll also have to work closely together.

Coming from behind is never easy, and, as Babcock contends, just trying to ride Linux’s coattails will not be enough. KVM will have to continue to define its own value proposition, and it will need all the marketing and technological support its marquee backers can deliver. One area of particular importance is operations management in the data center.

KVM’s market share, as reported by Gartner earlier this year, was less than one percent in server virtualization. It has a long way to go before it causes VMware’s executives any sleepless nights. That it wasn’t the first choice of its proponents, and that it has lost so much time and ground, doesn’t help the cause.

Cisco Hedges Virtualization Bets

Pursuant to my post last week on the impressive growth of the Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA), which aims to commoditize VMware’s virtualization advantage by offering a viable open-virtualization alternative to the market leader, I note that Red Hat and five other major players have founded the oVirt Project, established to transform Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager (RHEV-M) into a feature-rich virtualization management platform with well-defined APIs.

Cisco to Host Workshop

According to coverage at The Register, Red Hat has been joined on the oVirt Project by Cisco, IBM, Intel, NetApp and SuSE, all of which have committed to building a KVM-based pluggable hypervisor management framework along with an ecosystem of plug-in partners.

Although Cisco will be hosting an oVirt workshop on November 1-3 at its main campus in San Jose, the article at The Register suggests that the networking giant is the only one of the six founding companies not on the oVirt Project’s governance board.  Indeed, the sole reference to Cisco on the oVirt Project website relates to the workshop.

Nonetheless, Cisco’s participation in oVirt warrants attention.

Insurance Policies and Contingency Plans

Realizing that VMware could increasingly eat into the value, and hence the margins, associated with its network infrastructure as cloud computing proliferates, Cisco seems to be devising insurance policies and contingency plans in the event that its relationship with the virtualization market leader becomes, well, more complicated.

To be sure, the oVirt Project isn’t Cisco’s only backup plan. Cisco also is involved with OpenStack, the open-source cloud-computing project that effectively competes with oVirt — and which Red Hat assails as a community “owned”  by its co-founder and driving force, Rackspace — and it has announced that its Cisco Nexus 1000V distributed virtual switch and the Cisco Unified Computing System with Virtual Machine Fabric Extender (VM-FEX) capabilities will support the Windows Server Hyper-V hypervisor to be released with Microsoft Windows Server 8.

Increasingly, Cisco is spreading its virtualization bets across the board, though it still has (and makes) most of its money on VMware.

OVA Aims to Commoditize VMware’s Advantage

Although it’s no threat to VMware yet, the growth of the Open Virtualization Alliance (OVA) has been impressive. Formally announced in May, the OVA has grown from its original seven founding members — its four Governing Members (Red Hat, Intel, HP, and IBM), plus  BMC, Eucalyptus Systems, and Novel (SUSE) — expanding with the addition of 65 new members in June, finally encompassing  more than 200 members as of yesterday.

The overriding objective of the OVA is to popularize the open-source Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) so that it can become a viable alternative to proprietary server-virtualization offerings, namely market leader VMware.  To achieve that goal, OVA is counting on broad-based industry support from large and small players alike as it works to accelerate the development of an ecosystem of KVM-based third-party solutions. In conjunction with that effort, OVA also is encouraging interoperability, promoting best practices, spotlighting customer successes, and generally raising awareness of KVM through marketing events and initiatives.

Give the People What They Want 

While VMware isn’t breaking out in a cold sweat or losing sleep over OVA, it’s clear that many members of OVA are anxious about the potential stranglehold VMware could gain in cloud infrastructure if its virtualization hegemony goes unchecked. In that regard, it’s notable that certain VMware partners — IBM and HP among them — are at the forefront of OVA.

If customers are demanding VMware, as they clearly have been doing, then that’s what IBM and HP will give them. It’s good business practice for service-based solution providers to give customers what they want. But circumstances can change — customers might be persuaded to accept alternatives to VMware — and IBM and HP probably wouldn’t mind if they did.

Certainly VMware recognizes that its partners also can be its competitors. There’s even well-worn industry phrase for  it: coopetition. At the same time, though, IBM and HP would welcome customer demand for an open-source alternative to VMware, which explains their avidity for and evangelization of KVM.

Client-Server Reprise?

An early lead in a strategic market can result in long-term industry dominance. That’s what VMware wants to achieve, and it’s what nearly everybody else — excluding VMware’s majority shareholder, EMC — would like to prevent. Industry giants IBM and HP have seen this script play out in the client-server era with Microsoft’s Windows, and they’re not keen to relive the experience in cloud computing.

VMware’s customer appeal and market differentiation derive from its dominance in server virtualization, a foundation that allows it to extend up and out into areas that could give it a stranglehold on cloud computing’s most valuable technologies. Nearly every vendor with a stake in the data center is keeping a wary eye on VMware. Some, such as Microsoft and Oracle, are outright competitors seeking to cut into VMware’s market lead, while others — such as HP, IBM, and Cisco — are partnering pragmatically with VMware while pursuing strategic alternatives and contingency plans.

Commoditizing Competitor’s Edge

In promoting an open-source alternative as a means of undercutting a competitor’s competitive advantage, IBM and its OVA cohorts are taking a page from a well-worn strategic handbook. This is what Google unleashed against Apple in mobile operating systems with Android, and what Facebook is trying to achieve against Google in cloud data centers with its Open Compute Project. For OVA’s charter members, it’s all about attempting to commoditize a market leader’s competitive differentiation to level the playing field — and perhaps to eventually tilt it to your advantage.

IBM and HP have integration prowess and professional-services capabilities that VMware lacks. If they can nullify virtualization as a strategic asset by commoditizing it, they relegate VMware to a lesser role. However, if they fail and VMware’s differentiation is maintained and extended further, they risk losing a great deal of long-term account control in a burgeoning market.

KVM Rather than XenServer

Some might wonder why the open-source server virtualization alternative became KVM and not, say, XenServer, whose custodian, XenSource, is owned by Citrix. One of the reasons could be Citrix’s relatively warm embrace by Microsoft. When Gartner released its Magic Quadrant for x86 Server Virtualization Infrastructure this summer, it questioned whether Citrix’s ties to Microsoft could result in XenServer being compromised. Microsoft, of course, has its own server-virtualization entry in Hyper-V.

In the end, the OVA gang put down its money on KVM rather than XenServer, seeing the former as a less-complicated proposition than the latter. That appears to have been the right move.

Clearly OVA has experienced striking growth in just a few months, but it has a long way to go before it meets the strategic mandate envisioned by its founders.

For Microsoft, China Forecast is Cloudy

Trying to discern what’s happening in China — in technology, in politics, and where the two frequently converge — is a difficult endeavor.  Much of what occurs there is reported partially, inaccurately, or not at all.  You have to read the entrails and sift the tea leaves to follow the game, and there’s always a possibility you’ll misinterpret the signals.

That’s why, with China and technology, stories seem to emerge from nowhere. Developments percolate in unseen back rooms or in secret laboratories, then they spring into the public realm, catching some people (yes, I am raising my hand) by surprise.

NeoKylin?

This morning, for instance, I read that Microsoft has struck an agreement with a Linux operating system provider, China Standard Software Co. Ltd., to  jointly develop, market, and sell solutions for China’s cloud-computing market.  According to a Microsoft press release, the two companies will jointly develop solutions that will allow customers to adopt virtualization and cloud-based IT infrastructures.  The partners will focus on certification of China Standard’s NeoKylin Linux-based operating system on Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V, creating Microsoft Systems Center management packs for NeoKylin application workloads, and incorporating support for NeoKylin within the Hyper-V Cloud architecture.

The companies also have signed a “mutually beneficial customer legal covenant agreement.”

When I read the press release, I wanted to know more about NeoKylin. There’s not a lot of background material on the Internet, but I was able to learn that the operating system first received public mention toward the end of last year. At that time, China Standard Software and China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) signed a strategic partnership to launch NeoKylin as an operating system that will be used for national defense and across key strategic sectors of China’s economy.

Ironic Turn

Before the advent of NeoKylin, China Standard developed the NeoShine Linux desktop distribution, whereas academics at NUDT produced Kylin, a secure FreeBSD-based alternative to Windows and other foreign operating systems.

There’s a certain irony in today’s announcement, because it’s clear that China wants to become less dependent on Western software purveyors by developing a domestic software industry capable of delivering home-grown operating systems.

China’s IT Aspirations and Concerns

China is pursuing this strategy for two reasons. First, it wants to develop a thriving software industry that refocuses its IT efforts upmarket, from lower-value manufacturing to higher-value research and innovation. But China also is pursuing its software strategy because of security concerns, including that software from Microsoft might be used against it — perhaps through backdoors and trojans — in the event of escalating tensions with the US and the West.

In that context, let’s cast our minds back to late 2008, when Microsoft’s anti-piracy strategy, undertaken as an outgrowth of its Windows Genuine Advantage initiative, included turning Windows desktop screens black when pirated copies of the operating system were detected.   This gambit not only resulted in howls of outrage and lawsuits from Chinese consumers, but it caused China’s authorities to wonder what else Microsoft might be able to do remotely to Windows-based computers.

Earlier in the last decade, Microsoft chose to espouse a tolerant approach to software piracy in China. Microsoft wasn’t happy about the practice, to be sure, but it felt it was better to build a user base that might be persuaded to pay for the software later than to clamp down hard on piracy and drive users to Linux or other open-source alternatives.  By 2008, though, Microsoft’s heart had hardened toward software piracy, and it took a more aggressive tack, resulting in the “black screen” and renewed fears in China about dependence on Windows.

Microsoft’s Mixed Results

It also has resulted in mixed results for Microsoft. Matt Rosoff reported at Business Insider earlier this year that Microsoft derives revenue of about $1.25 billion from China — one-fiftieth of the company’s total take. Microsoft does much better in India than in China, and it believes that its China revenue could grow to $7.5 billon if the authorities there would take a harder line against software piracy.

Apparently China has other plans.

So, now, in a bid to get a piece of what apparently is a burgeoning cloud-computing market in China, Microsoft will work with an operating-system developer whose government-mandated charter is to dislodge Windows from desktops and servers spanning the country’s key industries.

Microsoft Stumbles in Mobile Murk

This post is something of an experiment. I want to write about Microsoft’s commitment  to the tablet PC and see whether anyone cares.

I did not witness Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s opening address at his company’s Worldwide Partner Conference. Most reports suggest that Ballmer was typically loud and proud, proclaiming an imminent Microsoft revival in cloud computing, mobile operating systems, and tablet computing.

For now, in this particular post, I will limit by commentary to Microsoft’s plans for tablet computing. The other topics will be addressed at another time.

According to Ballmer, about 20 device manufacturers will unveil various shapes and sizes of slate and tablet computers based on Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system before the year ends. Among the vendors churning out Windows 7 slates and tablets will be Acer Inc, Dell Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, Toshiba Corp, Sony Corp., and numerous other hardware OEMs.

Ballmer didn’t mention HP, which procured its own operating system for smartphones, slates, and tablets when it acquired Palm and webOS. Nonetheless, Reuters reported that HP’s logo appeared on a slide listing PC makers working on Windows-based devices.

It’s hard to know how much to invest in that tidbit, however, because Phil McKinney, CTO of HP’s personal systems group, was simultaneously explaining at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat 2010 conference in San Francisco that his company bought Palm to “control the end-to-end experience” delivered by HP’s mobile devices.

It’s possible, of course, that HP will offer tablets based on Windows 7 as alternatives to its webOS products. HP might do so just to keep its relationship with Microsoft from fraying. Even so, HP will put its primary focus on the technology it acquired from Palm. To suggest otherwise is to question why HP bought Palm, and to question the sanity of HP’s executive leadership. Clearly HP did not buy Palm just so that it could license Windows for HP’s mobile devices.

Putting aside the touchy HP question, does Microsoft have what it takes to compete in a space that has been authoritatively defined by the success of Apple’s iPad? Theoretically anything can happen, but past performance and current circumstances suggest that Microsoft will not become king of this particular castle.

Let’s enumerate the reasons. First, there are questions about the technical suitability of Windows 7 for various slates and tablets. Windows hasn’t performed elegantly on netbooks — I, for one, immediately replaced the sluggish Windows Vista with Ubuntu on a low-end netbook in my possession —  and it’s an open question as to how well Windows 7 will perform on touch-based slates and tablets. A second consideration is whether Microsoft can deliver an experience that will be uniformly satisfactory across a broad range of devices from multiple vendors. Finally, it’s not 1999 anymore, and Microsoft’s isn’t the only operating-system software that device OEMs can evaluate for their new products. Google’s Android and Chrome are available, as are many variations of Linux. Microsoft isn’t the only game in town for tablet manufacturers.

Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, Microsoft seems to lack the customer intimacy and market focus that would give it a fighting chance in any competition against a strong rival with a notable head start.

Does Microsoft understand its tablet customers? Does it know who they are, what they want, and why they might choose a Windows device over one from Google or Apple? I’m not sure Microsoft has those answers. The company still seems to be pitching its products at an indeterminate intersection between the enterprise and the consumer. The trouble is, that crossroads is enveloped in darkness and fog, indistinct and poorly defined. Meanwhile, Microsoft wanders in the market’s wilderness, failing to travel on either road.

As I said earlier, though, anything is possible. Microsoft could get back on track, and it could reverse its declining fortunes in mobile devices, starting with slates and tablets and then —  yes, suspension of disbelief is required for this illogical leap — with smartphones, too. That said, Microsoft didn’t do enough today to prefigure such a bright future. From were I stand, the horizon looks murky and ominous.

Microsoft Past Its Prime, but Even Blodget Wouldn’t Bet on Its Imminent Demise

Henry Blodget’s Business Insider is a guilty pleasure. From the tabloid headlines to the flashpoint content, carefully contrived to generate criticism and heated debate, Blodget gives you plenty of sizzle even when he forgets to put a steak on the grill.

Occasionally, though, he’ll provide some food for thought alongside the crowd-seeking sensationalism. In one of his latest pieces — portentously titled, “The Odds Are Increasing That Microsoft’s Business Will Collapse” — Blodget injects enough plausibility into his argument to evoke the image of an erstwhile software giant staggering incontinently toward an open grave.

To summarize, Blodget contends that Microsoft draws the vast majority of its profits from its Windows and Office franchises. He provides colorful charts to illustrate the point, which is indisputable. He then posits Microsoft’s predicament: the Internet, the rise of mobility (in which it has been abject), the ascent of cloud computing, and the determined competitive incursions of Apple and Google have put Microsoft’s cash cows in mortal peril.

As Blodget phrases it:

The desktop PC isn’t the center of anyone’s universe anymore. The Internet is. And the Internet doesn’t require Windows.

As for Office, he points to the rise of Google Apps, which Blodget perceives as a “classic disruptive technology” that is “cheaper, easier, and more convenient to use than Microsoft Office.”

At the end of the piece, Blodget presents three scenarios for Microsoft:

Right now, the investors are concluding that Microsoft will gradually become the equivalent of a technology utility–a boring but necessary provider of the software that runs the world’s business community.  A smaller, more optimistic crowd is still arguing that, one day, Microsoft will be able to turn its fortunes around, and fight its way back into an industry leadership position.

What almost no one is talking about is a third possibility, one that becomes more likely by the day: The possibility that, a couple of years down the road, Microsoft’s business may just completely collapse.

Given enough time, anything is possible. Still, is there a strong likelihood that Microsoft’s business will “completely collapse” in two years? I doubt it. The primary reason for such doubt is that customers aren’t moving to the cloud fast enough to bring about Microsoft’s immediate demise.

Startup companies, free of established processes and prior IT investments, increasingly are adopting cloud models that tend to leave Microsoft out of the action (or with only a small piece of it). Even so, Microsoft has a Windows installed base of SME and enterprise customers that will think at least twice before abandoning the devil they know. That’s human nature, especially during a period of great and persistent economic uncertainty.

The situation is similar, though perhaps more tenuous, for Office. Google will win defections, starting in vertical markets where Microsoft’s Office pricing is most onerous and its high-end features less necessary. There’s no question that Microsoft will see erosion in its licensed and shrink-wrapped Office business, but that erosion is not likely to become a catastrophic landslide within two years.

Are Microsoft’s best days behind it? Yes, I think so. The company is extremely unlikely to reach anything approaching market leadership in mobile platforms and smartphones, its former hold on PC and mobile-device OEMs has slackened, and it’s at a perennial loss in areas such as web search and  in most consumer markets. It needs to invest more in its SME and enterprise offerings, including its business-oriented cloud services, and less in consumerist boondoggles.

But the collapse of Microsoft in two years? All things considered, I’d bet against that outcome. I tend to think Blodget would, too. Then again, he’s drawn traffic with his provocatively headlined post, so he probably won’t mind the hedging strategy.