Virtual appliances are a great way to test different software applications and operating systems (OS) with little to no friction. While both Novell and VMware target their tools at independent software vendors (ISVs), there is a clear use case for the same capability in large organizations. It's not uncommon for large IT departments to function the same way an ISV would in terms of building and delivering applications. Virtual appliances offer another alternative to the idea of "try, or test, before you buy."
The standalone Linux appliance concept is not a new one. It's been around almost as long as VMware's been in business. The idea took off in 2005 with the introduction of the free VMware Player. The Player was an application that allowed users to try out an unlimited number of different operating systems and applications without installation hassles.
Another benefit of virtual appliances is proof of concept demonstrations. You can stand up a content management system, corporate Wiki and blog engine or even test a different Linux distribution without the need for any additional hardware. Once you make the decision to implement, you'll have everything in place to go live with very little additional work.
Creating these virtual appliances, however, is slightly more difficult. Physical to Virtual (P2V) tools have helped the situation somewhat, but they don't scale very well. The vmcreator.com Web site will create a basic VMware config file (.vmx) and a blank VMware disk image (.vmdk) ready to install the OS and applications of your choice: The rest is left up to the user. Several companies, however, have developed automated tools to help address this situation.
Virtual appliance assistance
VMware has an offering called VMware Studio that comes as a virtual appliance and provides a framework for building appliances. It has a Web-based interface, making it easy to pick and choose from a list of profile "templates" to create different virtual appliances. It also simplifies building numerous appliances with the same basic configuration.
Novell, as well, released its SUSE Studio tool this summer with an eye toward simplicity and speed.
"Our focus with the initial release of this product is the ISV market. Our goal is to lower the entry barrier so that anyone can build and distribute their software as an appliance as fast as possible," says Matt Richards, director of emerging technologies at Novell.
SUSE Studio is currently available as an online offering with a testing capability, and Novell plans to release a version for in-house use in 2010.
Bitrock is an ISV that has adopted SUSE Studio into its product offerings.
"We work with other ISVs to help them develop an install package for their applications. Creating a virtual appliance was just a logical next step and SUSE Studio makes it possible," said Erica Bruscia, CEO of Bitrock.
"We had found the process to be just too complex and time consuming to do manually and would not have been able to deliver this service without SUSE Studio," she added. They also sponsor a Web site called bitnami.org with a number of different open source applications packaged as appliances.
How to work with SUSE Studio
Here's a quick how-to with SUSE Studio from Joanna Rosenberg, Novell's product marketing manager of open platform solutions:
SUSE Studio allows independent software vendors (ISVs) to rapidly build and test appliances based on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server from Novell or openSUSE. Appliances created in SUSE Studio can be deployed on many platforms, ranging from physical and ISO to OVF, Hyper-V, Xen, VMware, and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).
Software vendors are seeing the benefits of SUSE Studio, which allows them to create robust and scalable products with reduced setup and maintenance costs. For ISVs, SUSE Studio is easy to use, allowing them to quickly put together an appliance and deliver patches in record time.
Here are five easy steps to get started with SUSE Studio:
- Choose a desktop and create an appliance or bootable system using any of the base templates such as GNOME, KDE, and Just Enough OS (jeOS).
- Create customized software either using pre-installed packages and repositories or an RPM-based repository that can be loaded into any system built with SUSE Studio.
- Configure the appliance to determine network connection and firewall settings, or fine-tune memory and disk use settings if installing to a disk or USB drive or running in a virtual machine.
- Build the appliance using your format of choice -- ISO, disk image or ready-made virtual machine file. You can also run custom-built appliances on their own virtualization servers for up to one hour at no extra cost.
- Download the resulting disk or hypervisor images and distribute.
Benefits of SUSE Studio are clear
Virtual appliances offer a number of cost-saving and convenience benefits for corporate IT departments, and SUSE Studio provides an easy-to-use interface to build custom virtual appliances tailored to meet specific needs. Signing up for a SUSE Studio test drive is free; all you have to do is visit the SUSE Studio Web site and request an invitation. They kick out a new batch of invites every hour, so it shouldn't take long at all. From there, you should be off and running.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Ferrill has a BS and MS in electrical engineering and has been writing about computers for over twenty years. He's had articles published in PC Magazine, PC Computing, InfoWorld, Computer World, Network World, Network Computing, Federal Computer Week, Information Week, and multiple Web sites.
This was first published in November 2009