Novell steers Linux to the virtualized datacenter

SLES 10 and Xen virtualization take center stage at BrainShare 2006

At Novell’s annual gathering of the faithful in Salt Lake City, the company had plenty of news to share, including a new mobile server for GroupWise based on Nokia Intellisync, upgrades to Novell’s SSO (single sign-on) and storage management software, road map information for OES (Open Enterprise Server), and a partnership with Dell, which soon offer an edition of Zenworks Linux Management to server hardware customers running Red Hat or Suse.

But the spotlight at BrainShare Global 2006 belonged to the new edition of Novell’s flagship server operating system, SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) 10, and its newly integrated Xen 3.0 “hypervisor.” An open source system virtualization project with heavyweight commercial backers (including AMD, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell, Red Hat, and Sun), Xen promises the same sort of systems management nirvana as VMware and Microsoft Virtual Server: consolidate a number of VMs on a single physical server -- or across many servers using a clustered file system -- and allocate memory, CPU, I/O, and network resources as workloads require.

Xen will support “paravirtualized” guests -- operating systems modified by their makers to be Xen-aware -- on existing x86 systems (32- and 64-bit), and it will support unmodified guests on forthcoming Intel VT and AMD Pacifica systems, which handle some low-level virtualization functions in hardware. According to Novell, Xen paravirtualization is more efficient than full virtualization schemes such as VMware ESX -- and Xen without hardware assistance. In conference sessions, Novell shared data showing Xen machines nearly matching native system performance on a number of system and TCP benchmarks.

Novell is in the process of porting SLES 9 and NetWare 6.5 to Xen. The company says that SLES 9 will be Xen-enabled by year’s end and that NetWare will follow suit by mid-2007, arriving in OES 2. (NetWare was shown running as a paravirtualized Xen guest in the BrainShare exhibit hall.) Promising to allow customers to migrate to Linux at their own pace, Novell committed to supporting NetWare, as a Xen guest, “for as long as customers want it,” to quote CEO Jack Messman. Novell specifically promised two more releases.

The Xen hypervisor offers features such as full SMP support, dynamic management of memory resources among guests, software control over guest I/O, and the ability to ensure service levels by guaranteeing guests certain fractions of physical CPUs. It can also migrate live workloads from one physical server to another. However, even by Novell’s own admission, Xen’s tools for managing VMs are primitive.

Novell is hard at work in an attempt to address this shortcoming. It plans to deliver an integrated suite of policy-driven VM management tools on top of Zenworks in the next six to 12 months. The race to adaptive management of the virtualized, x86-based datacenter is on.

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