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Can VMware end Linux hardware compatibility problems?

VMware made announcements yesterday that might spell an end to one of the biggest problems facing Linux: Hardware compatibility. If you think you missed the hardware compatibility announcement yesterday, don't worry: The answer lies in VMware's ESX 3i, the Open Virtual Machine Tools announcement, and the announcement of a draft specification for a portable virtual machine format.

VMware made announcements yesterday that might spell an end to, or at least seriously mitigate, one of the biggest problems that has faced Linux since day one: Hardware compatibility. If you think you missed the hardware compatibility announcement yesterday, don’t worry: The answer lies in VMware’s ESX 3i, the Open Virtual Machine Tools announcement, and the announcement of a draft specification for a portable virtual machine format.

Linux desktop and server users are all-too-familiar with the problem of limited hardware support for Linux. You buy a new system, go to load Linux on the system and find out that one or more crucial components are not supported under Linux. Maybe you’re just ahead of the curve and the drivers haven’t made their way into the mainstream kernel. Maybe you’re running an enterprise distro that hasn’t rolled the drivers into a patch just yet.

No matter what the reason, this can be a serious problem for home desktop users and large organizations alike. VMware’s ESX 3i, however, promises to change that. While ESX 3i is not aimed at the driver problem, it has the nice side effect of making hardware support less problematic when ordering servers. You don’t need to know if Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4 supports the Acme Raid SuperCard, only that it is supported under ESX 3i.

The announcement that VMware’s Virtual Machine Tools will be released as open source means that any distro that wants to have support for VMware’s virtual devices should be able to do so — no more worry about compiling VMware tools, your favorite distro will probably come with the tools supplied as packages in the future.

Not for desktops, yet…

Now, all of this is taking place around the server now, but I don’t think that’s likely to continue. When I spoke to VMware’s Raghu Raghuram, vice president of datacenter and desktop platforms on Tuesday, he wasn’t disclosing any plans to provide desktop solutions, but it seems likely that VMware’s hardware-based solutions will trickle down from servers to workstations and desktops in fairly short order.

So picture the not-so-distant future: You’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to a new desktop, so you use something like Acronis or an open source tool to copy your physical machine to a standard Virtual Machine format.

You have your desktop OS or OSes stored as a virtual machine image on a FireWire or USB drive. You go to Dell, HP, or another OEM and purchase a desktop system without anguishing over whether the hardware on the system is compatible or not.

The system arrives, you plug in the external drive and copy your VMs over to the new system — or maybe you just run them off of external storage. No worries about hardware compatibility — as far as the virtual system is concerned, the hardware hasn’t changed, except maybe it sees a little (or a lot) more RAM or a few more CPU cores. You don’t have to worry about migrating data or any of that fuss — the same desktop just pops up on the new machine like nothing has ever changed.

One VM, many hypervisors

How does the portable virtual machine format play into this? Well, while VMware has a lead on other virtualization vendors in the hypervisor on a chip race, it’s not going to be the only player for long. Count on Microsoft, SWsoft, and Citrix/XenSource to deliver similar functionality within the next year or so — and probably others as well.

Not only will users be able to feel confident about hardware support, they’ll also have the option of buying hardware with different virtualization options, and still be able to run existing virtual machines.

This might sound a little far-fetched now, but a hypervisor on a chip sounded pretty unlikely just a few years ago. The future is looking pretty bright.

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