Novell's announcement of a new tool that creates Xen virtual images and the open sourcing of the openSUSE Build Service may have provided some much-needed enterprise clout to the idea of running virtual appliances in the enterprise.
Novell's program, called the openSUSE Build Service, allows developers to maintain and build packages at a single location for multiple Linux distributions, including openSUSE, SUSE Linux Enterprise, Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu or other projects. From there, developers can then create complete system images using the KIWI tool. Build Service uses Novell's proprietary AutoBuild, the same internal and proprietary Novell versioning system by which it builds its commercial distribution, SUSE Linux Enterprise.
KIWI provides a complete operating system image for Linux-supported hardware platforms, as well as for virtualization systems like Xen, using a two-part process. As a first step, KIWI takes a valid software package source and creates a so-called "physical extent," according to the provided image description. It then uses the physical extent to create the operating system image.
Ultimately, this will allow SUSE developers to start creating Novell-branded virtual appliances, although Novell representatives wouldn't speculate about when commercialized appliances might appear.
rPath rBuilder resemblance
Novell's openSUSE Build Service bears a resemblance to Raleigh, N.C.-based rPath's rBuilder program, which helps ISVs create appliances on top of its own version rPath Linux distribution.
The problem with rPath Linux, though, is that it does not have the enterprise support or certification of a distribution like SUSE Linux, said Justin Steinman, Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open platform solutions.
"[This Build Service] is based on AutoBuild technology, which is also how we build openSUSE Enterprise, which is why we can ship eight months before Red Hat," Steinman said. "rPath is trying to enable companies to roll their own distros. But our question is: What do customers do about enterprise support? What you can't do with rPath is software certifications, and I have a hard time believing enterprise customers want to put an operating system in an enterprise without certification on top."
Indeed, support and certification have quickly emerged as key concerns about virtual appliances. Bloggers like David Lutterkort, who works for Red Hat Inc.'s content and collaboration management group, wonder what entity will keep the hundreds of virtual appliances in tomorrow's data center updated and well-managed. As it stands, when things go awry with a virtual appliance, administrators can easily strip them out and replace them, but they will lose whatever customizations they made for their specific environments in the process.
"Good appliance tools should be focused on producing appliances that can be managed well," Lutterkort wrote at watzmann.blog. "Let's make sure that users have a reasonable way to upgrade the appliance and preserve their customizations at the same time."
rPath's stripped-down custom Linux is why Tony Iams, an analyst with Rye Brooke, N.Y.-based Ideas International Ltd., sees rBuilder appliances as a good fit only for customers who are agnostic about which operating system is going into their data center -- and not for users running popular enterprise applications.
"The problem with the rPath approach is their Linux distribution, because the reality is that the industry is oriented around running applications on specific operating systems," Iams said. "Again, rPath is going after ISVs, so those are new applications. But for existing apps, like Oracle, WebSphere or third-party, they are usually written off for a specific operating system release."
Operating system changes afoot
Support and certification issues aside, Novell's openSUSE Build Service mirrors what rPath has been doing with Linux, virtualization and software appliances for the past year, and it's part of a larger trend, said Marty Wesley, rPath director of product marketing.
"The significance of [KIWI] is this is a trend that was coming for a while. It is a trend that will see the general purpose operating system split in two," he said.
On the one hand, Wesley said, the OS is going to manage hardware and provide a hypervisor interface. On the other side will be the application operating system, which will be tailored to the needs of the application. This trend could allay some of Iams' concerns over a perceived lack of support for existing applications.
So, will we one day in the not-so-distant-future see every application released as a virtual appliance?
"It's conceivable," said Ideas' Iams, but for now that prediction applies only to server-side applications. "And I hesitate to say 'all applications,' but a vast majority could head that way."
The openSUSE Build Service and the KIWI imaging tool are currently available for immediate download. Both tools are available as open source projects.