On June 9, Novell and VMware announced an OEM deal over SUSE Enterprise Linux. (SLES). Basically, if you buy vSphere 4 (or 4.1) after June 9th, you get a free copy of SLES to run on any CPU on which you have a valid licence for vSphere. VMware is still fairly vociferous that the hypervisor and the Operating System are separate entities, but in some sense this obviously lines up SLES on vSphere alongside Windows on Hyper-v, in both cases the O/S and the hypervisor are supplied under the same licence.
Now clearly SLES also contains two other hypervisors (KVM and Xen), but you aren’t allowed to use either of them – the SLES license is only for use with vSphere, and you can’t install the SLES on bare-metal or on any other hypervisor. This deal is about SLES as a guest. Novell positions SLES as the “universal guest” running well on every hypervisor, and has optimized drivers for most virtual environments.
One key thing that you need to delve into the announcement to find is that the free SLES is unsupported. You get upgrades, but not support. VMware will offer extra-cost support for SLES in due course. VMware will also build all its own virtual appliances on SLES as part of the deal.
In the medium term the VMware/SUSE deal is probably aimed at helping VMware’s ISV push. There are thousands of applications out there where ISVs don’t officially support virtualized operation and many customers are reluctant to install ISV applications on unsupported platforms. ISVs in turn are used to defining a set of supported operating system versions and physical hardware platforms, and don’t really want to introduce an extra level of complexity by considering the three-way combination of operating system, hypervisor, and physical hardware platform (even though the hardware complexity is largely removed by the hypervisor). Novell has an extensive ISV accreditation program that VMware can leverage to drive ISVs towards its own platform.
And so we come to Microsoft’s view on all of this. Perversely this deal with Novell actually brings VMware and Microsoft in closer alignment, SLES has always been Microsoft’s favored route to a controlled form of openness. It is worth following on from our previous post in considering the way that uniquely amongst open source distributions, SLES is patent-protected by a covenant between Novell and Microsoft. This means that if you use SLES you cannot be sued for patent infringement on certain key Microsoft technologies. Note, however, that patent infringement exemption is for end-users only. The OEMs themselves (i.e. VMware in this case) are not covered. IBM also OEMs SLES (and has done so for years) and Microsoft hasn’t actually sued IBM, so presumably VMware is fairly safe.
As we mentioned in our previous post Novell is currently being pursued by a private equity house with a view to breaking it up into pieces that are worth more than the whole. We don’t know the revenues that accrue to Novell under the VMware deal, both in terms of the OEM deal or the additional licenses sold as VMware appliances, or how they compare to the loss in revenue from licenses that would have come directly from the customer, but there is a long history of OEM deals leading to acquisition and it may be that VMware would ultimately acquire SLES if it were to be split out of Novell, and if Red Hat gets traction with a KVM-based RHEL-on-RHEL solution.
In the longer term and in the wider context it is worth noting that in the Java world you can see the PaaS (Platform as a Service) cloud emerging with multiple infrastructure vendors offering similar services and a degree of interoperability. In Microsoft-land you have Azure. Licensing SLES leaves out a tantalizing prospect that VMware can build its own semi-official version of Azure, using vSphere, SLES and Mono, without a Windows server operating system in the mix. A Microsoft-blessed open source Azure clone may seem far-fetched, but enterprises tend to feel more comfortable if they are offered at least the possibility of a second source for key infrastructure, and it may actually be in Microsoft’s strategic interest.