Novell invites ISVs to build software appliances on SUSE Linux

Embedded Linux and new direction

To make it easier for its customers to deploy new applications on virtualized or standard servers, Novell's SUSE Linux division is jumping into the software appliance wave.

Novell Wednesday unveiled its SUSE Appliance Program, which provides a smaller "just-enough-operating-system" (JeOS) version of its SUSE Linux Enterprise operating system that ISVs can use to integrate with their software applications. By integrating the operating system with the application, a software stack is created that can be easily placed on a virtual or standard server and run as a normal application, without heavy configuring and without lengthy installation steps, according to Novell.

"A virtual appliance is simply a virtual machine image which contains the operating system, plus the application, pre-configured and ready to run," said Nat Friedman, Novell's chief technology and strategy officer. "The concept is that an ISV would take their application, they'd combine it with an operating system, they would do the testing and integration to make sure it's ready and that it's going to work, then they would do all the configuration work so the customer doesn't have to."

The customers then take the pre-packaged application/operating system software stack and places it on their virtualization hypervisor and say "go," Friedman said. The software stack is like a hard disk image that runs on a virtualized server along with as many other virtualized applications and servers a user wants to run, he said. For customers, the benefits are faster and easier deployments of new applications, Friedman said, because they can avoid detailed installations and their patches, fixes and debuggings.

For ISVs that want to offer their applications atop SUSE Linux to customers, it can allow them to offer their applications to smaller businesses that may not have large, fully staffed IT departments that would be able to install and run the stand-alone applications.

"Deployment at every level is greatly simplified," Friedman said. "Most applications take several steps to install, each with the potential for error," as well as having to be sure to find and include all missing service packs and other fixes.

"It's very exciting for all kinds of ISVs because they get better control [for] their customers to get things running and working" smoothly, he said. "They're able to go in there with their application and the operating system and service their customers" without having to wait for the operating system vendor to come in and provide its own consulting services to get the application running well. "Today it can be a multi-week affair for an operating system vendor to come in and do the work that's needed," Friedman said. For SUSE, "it allows us to enter sales situations that were previous not thinkable for us," he said.

In the past, SUSE has worked with ISVs, including SAP AG last month, to create similar pre-configured software/operating system stacks, he said, but the JeOS effort is a wider program in which Novell hopes to bring in thousands of additional ISVs. "We think this is going to be a big shift," he said. "This shift is going to cause the ISVs to become distributors of operating systems."

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The beta JeOS operating system, which is built from the core of SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, includes only the code that's needed to run the applications as virtualized or software appliances. The virtual applications will be able to run on Xen, VMware ESX or Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors. JeOS is available today as a beta version, with a release version scheduled for distribution in a few weeks, Friedman said.

The beta version "is something that ISVs can start to use right now that will allow them to build these appliances," he said.

"We essentially want to be an arms dealer to [the ISVs]," Friedman said. "We want to be like the 'Intel Inside' of virtual appliances, to provide that SUSE underneath. These are some of the early steps we are taking."

Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC, said the software appliance and virtual appliance approach has previously been in use by companies such as rPath.

RPath, however, uses its own Linux, rather than a well-known distribution such as SUSE, which can be a problem for IT shops that don't want to have to support yet another operating system, Gillen said.

"In that context, it's got a value for the end user," he said of the SUSE version. ISVs will also like the SUSE program, he said, because "if you're an ISV, you want to limit the number of distributions that you support to save resources."

If you can offer a software appliance that runs on a hypervisor, it's a lot easier for the ISV," Gillen continued. "I think ISVs will embrace it once they get over fear of the idea."

The value for users, Gillen said, is that they can get a complete, ready-to-go application/operating system package that is already configured and set up for immediate use. By having the application vendor put such a package together and pre-test it, businesses can deploy it knowing that it will work properly.

"It gives you a single manageable entity that you can manage kind of like a black box," Gillen said. "In theory, it is easier for users."

On the other hand, he said, "this is a very immature marketplace" and some issues have not been fully resolved, including compatibility with other parts of the IT infrastructure. "There still are some questions about how the actual things will work for some customers."

Another issue, he said, is that by putting the ISV between the customer and the operating system vendor, the relationship between the vendor and the customer can be lessened. "Some OS vendors won't want to lose that relationship with their customers," he sid. "Your entire relationship will be with the application ISV."