Xen in the Clouds

By Derrick Harris

September 15, 2008

Not content with XenServer just being the underappreciated hypervisor layer of some of the world’s largest cloud infrastructures, Citrix is taking matters into its own hands. Today, the application delivery specialists launched its own cloud computing product line: Citrix Cloud Center (C3).

Described by Peter Levine, Citrix’s vice president and general manager for the management and virtualization division, as “the product line to power the new cloud computing era,” C3 is the product of “tremendous interest” from cloud vendors for a common infrastructure to maximize agility and backend resource utilization. Despite its alphanumeric acronym, however, C3 is not a cloud service like Amazon’s Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) or Simple Storage Service (S3). (In fact, Amazon itself uses open-source Xen as its hypervisor.) “We’re not building a cloud to compete with the vendors who, presumably, would be using the same technologies,” Levine says.

C3 is a four-phased set of software and services designed to give resource providers the tools they need to become players in the cloud-provider market. The first phase, says Levine, is XenServer Cloud Edition, an optimized version of the popular hypervisor that, in environments already running open-source Xen, will “wrap itself around that environment” to provide updated drivers, Windows support and other capabilities. In greenfield situations — where a provider is building its cloud infrastructure anew — XenServer Cloud Edition is a complete, cloud-ready virtual infrastructure.

The second phase, which comes to fruition concurrently, is application delivery with Citrix’s NetScaler product. According to Levine, the reference architecture is to “seed the base” with XenServer, and add in NetScaler to load balance, speed access to backend VMs and dynamically provision workloads. Off the bat, Cloud Center will provide both of these products working in tandem.

“There’s more to providing [cloud computing] than simply providing a flat virtual infrastructure,” says James Staten, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. “You want to have workflows, you want SLAs, you want to be able to automate and move things around, and that’s essentially what Citrix is bringing to the table — a full suite of tools to do all of that.”

Moving things around and workflows come in Phases 3 and 4, when users incorporate Citrix WANScaler and Citrix Workflow Studio, respectively. WANScaler lets users bridge enterprise and cloud computing environments, and Workflow Studio allows for the integration of business process and IT policy, thus creating a single automated, cohesive system. Says Levine: “I think the … ‘holy grail’ of cloud computing is the interoperability and interchange of virtual machine images and data that live either on-premise or in the cloud, and the ability for one to manage that environment and deal with capacity and the movement of guests, of operating systems or virtual machines, from the enterprise out to the cloud and back to the enterprise.”

Levine doesn’t know when this hybrid computing model will become the norm, but he acknowledges “we’re probably still a ways off.” Right now, it’s either/or, with start-ups renting cloud resources and enterprises continuing to build their own datacenters. The hybrid model Citrix envisions will start to take shape when IT administrators feel comfortable outsourcing some portion of their resources into the cloud, he says. The most likely candidates for outsourcing, he adds, are areas like disaster recovery and non-mission-critical, capacity-intensive applications like Exchange.

Citrix is rounding out Cloud Center with consumption-based pricing, which means that cloud providers will pay for their infrastructures the same way cloud customers pay for their services. “That sounds trite,” Levine notes, “but it’s a big change and something that cloud vendors are requiring of us in order to move into this market.” Not offering a pay-per-use pricing model has been a stumbling block for vendors trying to get traction in this market, Levine adds.

Citrix Cloud Center partners include 3Tera, Softlayer and Skytap.

Huge Market, Small Investment

Given that the components of Citrix Cloud Center already existed in Citrix’s product portfolio, Levine admits that investment in C3, specifically, has been substantially less than had the company had to launch an entirely new line of business with products to accompany it. Aside from the cloud providers already using Xen, Levine says “75 percent of all Internet users” touch a NetScaler device every day, and many of these Web users are looking to get into the cloud game. So, for Citrix, the product investment had already been made, leaving only packaging and optimization when the company decided to offer the C3 line. It’s a wise, balanced investment decision, Levine says.

Forrester’s Staten agrees. Calling Cloud Center “nothing groundbreaking” from a product perspective, he says the C3 offering does add business appeal. The cloud providers currently using open-source Xen aren’t big on upgrading, he says, but the tweaks to XenServer Cloud Edition and product tie-ins with NetScaler, WANScaler and Workflow Studio make a compelling case for change. And are a big draw for the service provider world as a whole.

Staten says he has not spoken with any hosters or subscription service providers who do not want a cloud offering. What makes it even better is that 3Tera — whose AppLogic software is used by numerous hosters — is a licensee of Citrix’s cloud offerings, so, says Staten, it makes for a quick on-ramp. For the rest, he adds, “they just want a turnkey way to do it.” As for end customers, Staten says that while cloud computing is still a niche market for enterprises, “it’s the game” for SMBs, developers and start-ups.

VMworld, being held this week in Las Vegas, should serve as the platform for numerous companies announcing cloud products and offerings, but Staten believes that between its existing market presence and what Citrix has done with Cloud Center and XenServer 5 (also announced today), “[f]rom a hypervisor perspective, it’s Xen’s game to lose.” However, he notes, a similar VMware solution could draw big numbers due to customer familiarity, and Microsoft’s foray into the cloud space could shake things up, too.

Although it is confident in its Cloud Center offering, Citrix makes no claims about how big the cloud market ultimately will be, nor about what increased competition will mean. It is hard to tell how big new markets will be, says Levine, and “[w]e just want to be there in the early days, which we already are with our current offerings, to really go and enable the cloud in the event that it becomes the next wave of computing.”

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