November 7, 2006 3:46 PM PST

VMware opens virtual-appliance marketplace

VMware, long an advocate of prepackaged software appliances that can be loaded onto virtualization software, launched a program Tuesday to certify and sell such virtual appliances.

The move expands VMware's earlier support for virtual appliances as a good way to try software. Now its Virtual Appliance Marketplace provides a way to buy as well. The EMC subsidiary also launched a certification program to ensure such appliances are working properly.

"It simplifies the distribution model and the installation model," said Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of product management, in an interview from the company's VMworld conference in Los Angeles. VMware already offered virtual-appliance downloads, but now has added the purchasing mechanism as well as the certification program.

VMware is betting that the marketplace will help sales of its Virtual Infrastructure products. And VMware will take a cut of the proceeds from sales.

"Currently (software companies) selling through the market provide a small percentage of their revenues," Krishnamurti said.

Virtualization allows several operating systems to run simultaneously on the same computer; it lets higher-end machines such as mainframes and Unix servers more adroitly and efficiently handle multiple tasks. Now the technology is arriving on mainstream servers using x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. VMware leads the market for virtualization on x86 servers, but competitors such as XenSource and Microsoft are nipping at its heels.

In VMware's view, software configuration and tuning is best left to experts who know how to pair operating systems with higher-level applications. Customers fire up a prepackaged software collection in the form of a virtual appliance, running it on a virtualization foundation such as VMware's ESX Server, XenSource's XenEnterprise or Microsoft's Virtual Server.

There are some consequences to the virtual-appliance approach, however. Operating-system license fees can be prohibitive, and appliances lack flexibility.

"The value is greatest if you can deploy fairly cookie-cutter software loads. If every image needs to be extensively tweaked, then there's not a big advantage," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

The idea has won over a major new ally, though: Microsoft, which announced its Virtual Hard Disk Test Drive program Monday. The company lured several partners for its program, including Citrix Systems, Symantec, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and BEA Systems. So far, though, Microsoft only offers trial software.

Microsoft and VMware may be conceptually aligned, but they aren't best friends. VMware President Diane Greene said earlier this year that Microsoft didn't renew an agreement that permitted VMware to distribute Windows as part of virtual appliances.

That friction highlights the role that operating systems such as Linux can play in appliances. Because Linux can be freely redistributed, companies may wrap it up along with their higher-level software.

Indeed, rPath, a start-up that focuses on embedding Linux into server appliances, announced a virtual push for its products. Last week, the company announced that it supports appliances built atop the open-source Xen virtualization foundation. Tuesday, it said it's offering a promotional period of free help for software companies trying to convert their applications into Linux-based virtual appliances.

Virtual appliances are "much more amenable to software that doesn't have a license fee. Otherwise, it's hard to get beyond demoware, a la Microsoft's recent announcement," Haff said.

VMware has enlisted several partners for its virtual-appliance plan. Among them are Astaro, which sells security software; B-hive Networks, which sells Web site transaction monitoring software; Reflex Security, which sells security software to protect against network intruders; Zeus Technology, which sells Web site software; and Red Hat, the top seller of Linux. Red Hat is working on appliances of its core Linux software and of its higher-level server application software, the company said.

Another new partner is Transitive, which began offering an evaluation version of its QuickTransit software to allow software created for Sun Microsystems' Sparc processors and Solaris operating system to run instead on Linux and x86 servers.

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