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September 7, 2005

Parallels Joins the PC and Server Virtualization Fray

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

As if the market for PC and server virtualization software is not already crowded enough, a new contender is entering the market. A startup company called Parallels launched today, and although the company has a slightly different origin from the more established players in the market, its product lineup for workstations and servers will look somewhat familiar to those already acquainted with products from VMware, Microsoft, SWsoft, and the open source Xen project.

The people behind the Parallels company, which is located in Herndon, Virginia, actually hail from Moscow, and they went to three different tech schools in that city to attain their bachelor's and master's degrees. Nikolay Doborovolskiy is the company's chief executive officer, and he received his degrees in computer science from the Moscow State Institute of Radiotechnics, Electronics, and Automation; Andrei Omelyanchuk is the company's director of engineering and he has his computer science degrees from Bauman Moscow State Technical University; and Timofey Surguchenko is the quality assurance director and has his bachelor's degree in applied physics and mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The reason why these three founders of Parallels got into the PC and server virtualization space is that they were hired by a large bank in Moscow in the late 1990s to create a virtualization platform so the bank could run its legacy and new applications side by side on the same PCs. After doing this development, the three founded a company and quietly sold a few thousand copies of what they considered alpha software. In 2001, Doborovolskiy was tapped to be CEO and Parallels began the task of creating a true commercial product based on the ideas from the code they had created for that Moscow bank. Parallels now employs more than 40 people across North America and Europe, and has taken the inevitable step of hiring a director of marketing--which even the open source Xen project had to do earlier this year. And now Parallels is gearing up to chase after the bucks that Microsoft and VMware think they have locked up in the PC and server virtualization software space.

For now, Parallels is pretty much relegated to the desktop, explains Benjamin Rudolph, the director of marketing for Parallels who ran a private marketing consultancy in Washington, D.C., prior to joining Parallels. But the company has every intention of moving into the server space, and it absolutely intends to compete on feature set and price with VMware, Microsoft, and XenSource, the commercial software company that Xen project leader Ian Pratt founded to provide commercialized extensions to the Xen hypervisor that is being bundled with the next generation of Linux operating systems.

The first product to come out of Parallels is Parallels Workstation 2.0, which is still in beta. (You can download it from the company's Web site for free.) Parallels Workstation 2.0 is, in concept, very similar to VMware's Workstation and Microsoft's Virtual PC. You load a host operating system on a PC, then you load the Parallels Workstation virtualization software, and then you can load guest operating systems inside the virtualization layer.

Rudolph says Parallels will first differentiate from the competition by offering support for more legacy guest and host platforms than other players. Parallels Workstation can have the following Microsoft operating systems as a host: Windows 2000 Professional, Server, and Advanced Server with SP4 or higher; Windows Server 2003; and Windows XP Home or Professional Edition. Any Linux that runs the Linux 2.4 or Linux 2.6 kernel is technically supported, but the distros from Red Hat, Novell, Mandriva, and Debian are being singled out as being tested and ready to rock. On the guest side of the virtualization software, Parallels is supporting Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT (workstation and server), Windows 2000 (workstation and server), Windows Server 2003, and Windows XP. The same Linuxes are also supported as guests, but so is the open source FreeBSD variant of Unix, IBM's OS/2, OS/2 Warp, and OS/2-derived eComStation (Remember that?), as well as Microsoft's DOS. (This is not a DOS window inside Windows, but rather a dedicated DOS partition on the workstation.) And just to round it out, Rudolph says Parallels is working on adding NetWare, Solaris, and Mac OS X support as guests. The latter two are possible on X86/X64 iron because Sun Microsystems has rejuvenated its Solaris on X86/X64 chips in the past two years and because Apple is in the midst of porting its BSD-derived Mac OS X operating system to Intel chips after ditching the PowerPC for future machines.

On the desktop, Parallels Workstation creates virtual machines that emulate a PC using an Intel i815 chipset. Each virtual machine can address up to 1.5 GB of physical memory, with 128 MB of RAM needed as a minimum for the host environment and then extra memory for virtual machines. Parallels is recommending 1 GB of main memory for real-world users. Each virtual machine can map to as man as four virtual hard disks (ranging from 20 GB to 128 GB in size), four virtualized serial ports, and three virtualized printer ports. All other peripherals such as keyboards, mice, LAN port, and such are also virtualized and shared. While Parallels Workstation does not yet support the Intel VT and AMD Pacifica hardware-assisted instruction set virtualization features expected in future chips, Rudolph says the product will support these features when they are commercially available. The virtualization software runs in 32-bit mode with Parallels Workstation 2.0, but with the 3.0 release 64-bit support as well as support for Solaris will be added. Features similar to VMware's VirtualSMP (for letting a partition span more than one processor) and VMotion (for moving partitions from one physical machine to another) are in the works, too, he says.

As for pricing, Parallels is being a bit cagey. "We are going to be comparable in function with VMware Workstation, but we will offer it significantly cheaper." VMware's Workstation 5.0 costs $199 per seat, and Microsoft's Virtual PC 2005 costs $129. It would not be surprising to see Parallels come in at $80 to $100 per seat to make some waves, but again, the company is not willing to talk about prices before Parallels Workstation actually begins shipping as a commercial product within a month.

VMware got the pole position in the virtualization software market by giving developers a means to configure and test applications running on lots of different platforms on the same physical PC--which is also why Microsoft bought Connectix in 2003. The money is in the servers, and Parallels knows that. To that end, the server version of the product, appropriately called Parallels Server, is expected in late 2005 or early 2006 and will probably come out based on the 3.0 release of the core Parallels software (although it may not be called Parallels Server 3.0). This software will use the host-guest virtualization technique, much as VMware's GSX Server and Microsoft's Virtual Server 2005 do. Windows and Linux will be the host operating systems for Parallels Server, and Linux, Windows, FreeBSD, and OS/2 will be the guest environments, with NetWare and Solaris probably coming along at some point.

In the middle of next year, out comes Parallels Enterprise Server, which is a bare-bones hypervisor like VMware's ESX Server that allows fully isolated Windows, Linux, OS/2, or FreeBSD partitions to run side-by-side.

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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