Raleigh, N.C.-based rPath Inc., whose tools create and manage virtual appliances, has optimized its software to run on Ubuntu and CentOS, a free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, significantly broadening rPath's footprint. The virtual appliance packaging application already supports Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise and rPath's own Linux OS, leaving Red Hat as the largest gap in its Linux coverage.
"We are gradually adding more operating systems," said Jake Sorofman, vice president of marketing for the startup. "We want to help customers build virtual machines on whichever OS they like."
To date, Red Hat Inc., the largest Linux distro vendor with nearly 60% of the market, has declined to allow rPath to rebuild Red Hat's binaries to create a stripped-down JeOS (or Just enough Operating System) version that would run on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), according to Billy Marshall, rPath's co-founder and chief strategy officer. To do so would require a contractual agreement that Red Hat has so far declined to sign, but rPath remains hopeful that Red Hat will change its mind in response to customer requests, he said.
In the meantime, rPath sees "plenty of opportunity" in optimizing other free Linux distros such as Debian and Fedora within rPath virtual appliances, Marshall said.
As a 3-year-old venture-backed firm founded by former Red Hat executives, rPath began as an effort to help independent software vendors (ISVs) create virtual appliances. With the rBuilder tool, ISVs combine a customized application, a mini-OS and any other components required to run the application, then enclose everything in a wrapper. The resulting application image or appliance, in turn, can be reproduced exactly an unlimited number of times and dropped on a hypervisor where it runs as a virtual machine, eliminating lengthy configuration and certification processes, according to Jake Sorofman, rPath's vice president of marketing.To the cloud and beyond
After getting its start in the ISV market, rPath took its appliance imaging technology to the cloud. Its rBuilder Online tool for creating Amazon Machine Images (AMI) has been used to create 43% of the virtual machines on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Sorofman said. Although rBuilder Online is a free, downloadable tool, the free product builds awareness about the on-premise, production version, he said.
Further, rPath's technology enables companies to create the specifications for a virtual machine, capture an image and deploy it either on a hypervisor or a cloud, whichever is cheapest, added Nathan Thomas, rPath's vice president of services.
The rapid growth of virtualization for application deployment has opened up the enterprise as a third market for rPath as companies cope with the downside: virtualization sprawl.
"People are constructing virtual machines ad hoc, unmanaged and unversioned," Thomas said. In other words, virtual machines have made application deployment easier but at the cost of more complex application maintenance and tracking.
To solve this problem, rPath created its Lifecycle Management product to automate many of the steps in deploying application updates and patches to the virtual appliance, Sorofman said.
"The difference is, rPath captured dependencies and relationships between application components during construction, so we can do a better job of managing changes and versions," he said. "We didn't just take a snapshot. We know what's inside the box."
Last year, San Francisco, Calif.-based KnowledgeTree Inc. used rPath to create a Software as a Service (SaaS) version of its document management software. Using rBuilder, KnowledgeTree created a cloud-based SaaS appliance without rewriting the core of its on-premise application, reducing the time to deliver the application in half, according to KnowledgeTree CEO Daniel Chalef. Instead of a shared-tenancy model where each customer has a partitioned sector of the cloud with its own data and user interface, rPath enabled KnowledgeTree to spin off separate, secure virtual appliances on Amazon EC2 for each customer.
"RPath provides a nice platform for rolling out appliances in the cloud," Chalef said. "And at the time, they were one of the only slimmed-down OSs we could get."
KnowledgeTree also is working with rPath on a revised version of its application that would provision and manage all the individual customer clusters through a single console.
"There's a limit to what the Amazon [cloud]provides in management technology," Chalef said. "This [appliance-based] lifecycle management will become really valuable."
Dana Gardner, a principal analyst at Gilford, N.H.-based Interarbor Solutions LLC, said tools like rPath should help companies adjust to fluctuations and manage their resources better while narrowing the gap between application development and deployment. Although the market for packaging applications as virtual appliances is still new, rPath's technology is mature and gives customers flexibility and portability in deployment options, he said.
"I expect rPath will be in high demand," Gardner said. Although there are alternative approaches, "its combination of hypervisor, virtual machine, application and OS in a highly standard way with Linux is a unique offering," he said.