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VKernel: Seeking Simplicity in the Wild, Woolly World of Virtualization

VKernel is a young company with its finger on the pulse of the virtual server market, one of the hottest in the software world. Buzz over virtual servers is so high-pitched, in fact, that CEO Alex Bakman sees the potential for a steady stream of new hires that will swell his company’s workforce to 5,000 people over the next five years.

Why the positive outlook? As organizations rapidly virtualize their data centers, they are experiencing a whole new set of systems management challenges which cannot be solved with traditional vendor tools in an acceptable time frame. VKernel brings to the mix a suite of virtual appliances for systems management meant to be easy to use and quick to deploy.

At the core of VKernel’s mission is a new strategy that allows customers to pay only for the features they need. The company sees this approach as different from the typical systems management solutions of expensive bloatware offerings with too many features that lots of users don’t need. Vkernel designed its virtual appliances to eliminate complexity and deliver actionable information. The result, according to Bakman, significantly saves time and assures a virtualization plan is successful.

“VKernel started as an opportunity to redefine how things are done. Virtualization is exploding. It solved many existing problems. But it also created a whole new slew of trouble,” Bakman told TechNewsWorld.

Getting Crowded

VKernel is focused on two primary areas in the virtualization management marketplace. One is capacity planning; the other is chargeback.

“In surveys, Gartner clients have consistently identified virtualization design complexity as a key issue, and thus tools designed to assist with this process will likely see increasing demand,” Cameron Haight, research vice president at Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

Chargeback is another growing area of interest as server virtualization customers grapple with issues such as managing virtual machine sprawl. Chargeback may be a tool to influence IT demand in this regard, he added.

“Thus, VKernel could be positioned well in terms of market requirements, but of course this does not guarantee viability. That depends not only upon product, but execution, as well as the responses from the competition,” said Haight.

Competition from both large and small tech vendors is growing every day. The net result: The virtualization management market is beginning to accelerate, and we see many firms potentially reaping the benefits, he said.

The Products

VKernel’s first product offering was the Chargeback Virtual Appliance. It gives IT managers a new way to provide virtual data center end-user departments with instant reports about resource consumption and how much it costs. The reports focus on resources they actually consume, such as CPU, memory, storage and network.

The company’s second product is the Capacity Bottleneck Analyzer. This virtual appliance enables enterprise users to instantly identify capacity bottlenecks on hosts, clusters and resources pools to identify problems that could slow performance or cause downtime. It builds a list of current RAM (random access memory), CPU (central processing unit), storage and network bottlenecks in a VMware infrastructure. It also predicts future capacity bottlenecks and issues alerts when trends exceed customizable thresholds.

For customers who need both solutions, VKernel offers the Virtual Appliance Suite for Systems Management. The suite provides the ability to share a common database back end, thus eliminating the need for every virtual appliance to rediscover the network. This saves time on deployment.

Defining Change

Bakman brought to his startup plan 15 years of experience in the systems management space. VKernel is his fourth business venture; software firm Ecora was the most recent company he founded.

After sizing up the trends unfolding with virtualization, Bakman saw a void. He was certain he could design a virtual appliance to enhance virtualization performance, lower cost and simplify the management of virtual environments.

With his goal firmly set, he started to develop the software in January 2007 when he launched the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company. He spent most of that year in research and development.

“I was taken with the notion that the computing industry had moved through a phase of spreading out data over many servers and then saw a need to consolidate through virtualization. That motivated me into starting a new company,” he said.

Early Hurdles

Bakman found some familiar problems as he set out to use virtual machines — essentially software programs — to solve virtualization issues. One big problem he faced was the mobility associated with virtualization.

For instance, it was difficult to come to terms with managing servers that, because of virtualization, could always be on the move and relocated at will to different host computers. That, he said, added a whole new dimension to the problem.

“I found some solutions from my mainframe days — for instance, having CPUs share storage and share memory. The same type of functionality was applicable,” he explained.

Swinging Pendulum

Developing a new product forced Bakman to relearn and reapply lessons discovered during his earlier mainframe management roles. In essence, the pendulum is swinging back to where it was.

“The industry tried distributed computing and found it was too much to manage. Now, the opposite direction is virtualization, with the same management needs,” he noted.

In today’s computing environment, virtualization is impacting on everything else going on, he said.

Great Disconnect

Another problem facing the industry is one he’s attempting to address with his virtual application: The types of software vendors are providing and the consumers’ needs aren’t aligned.

IT managers and systems managers, for example, do not have a lot of time to read manuals or train staff about new products. Also, they have no time to deploy complicated software. Instead, these consumers need instant solutions, he said.

“Vendors are still selling complicated products that are very expensive. There is no iPod-like experience for a systems administrator. That’s the disconnect,” explained Bakman.

The Solution

VKernel’s cure for this disconnect is a virtual appliance users can download and deploy quickly.

His solution brings him into the competition as a unique player — VKernel’s virtual appliances have nine patents pending.

Nonetheless, there’s no free ride for Bakman’s company. About 30 vendors are plying their wares in the virtual appliance software space.

“We’re using a single application to solve a single problem. We are building from the ground up,” he said.

Moving Forward

Bakman is focused on staying competitive. One of the most pressing challenges, he said, is making sure that VKernel supports all forms of the rapidly expanding virtual world. Another challenge is the expanding landscape into hypervisors and storage.

He also worries about challenges from big-name companies such as Microsoft.

“I see Microsoft coming out with its new free platform,” Bakman offered.

On the business side, he’s readying for challenges in internal management brought about by hyper-growth in people and sales.

“Things are moving fast,” he said.

Virtual Trends

“Chargeback has been one of the hot areas within virtualization over the past few years, with most vendors not paying too much attention to it,” Stephen Elliot, research director for enterprise systems management software and IT management service for research firm IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

Another concern has been price point. Many enterprises like the idea of a chargeback, but don’t want to pay much for a solution, according to Elliot.

“It’s a delicate balance. VKernel will have to build out its appliance portfolio, increase awareness and strike the best-fit customer price points to further its success. The market today is wide open, but really complicated,” he concluded.

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