Citrix Systems has announced a new project to develop a set of tools to allow virtual environments to be more independent of hypervisors. The aim is to allow portable application workloads to be created and run across Citrix XenServer, Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware ESX.

Project Kensho will solve a multitude of issues with interoperability between different platforms, while allowing automated provisioning of applications, rather than just virtual machines, according to Citrix.

Making it easier for enterprises to run a mixed environment will become increasingly important as virtualisation becomes a more mainstream technology. "Every large customer I talk to doesn't want to bet the farm on just one vendor," said Simon Crosby, the CTO of the virtualisation and management division at Citrix.

Project Kensho will also allow Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager to manage XenServer, according to Citrix.

Nathaniel Martinez, programme director in IDC's European System Infrastructure Solutions Group, said this should give enterprises more freedom, and he agreed with Crosby that most enterprises would at some point start using more than one platform. But he also questions whether vendors would be able to handle licensing without making it overly complicated for users, and if the same features for reliability, availability and security will be in place.

Supporting Citrix XenServer, Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware ESX casts a wide net, but there are also other virtualisation platforms and vendors, including Sun, Oracle and Red Hat, which are not mentioned in the Citrix announcement.

Project Kensho is based on the OVF (Open Virtual Machine Format), which was originally co-written by XenSource, which was acquired by Citrix in 2007 and VMware. After some help from Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell it was turned over to the DMTF (Distributed Management Task Force), and in September 2007 the standards organisation announced it had accepted a draft specification of OVF.

OVF uses existing packaging tools to combine one or more virtual machines together with a standards-based XML wrapper, giving the virtualisation platform a portable package containing all required installation and configuration parameters for the virtual machines. This allows any virtualisation platform that implements the standard to correctly install and run the virtual machines, according to the DMTF.

Roger Klorese, Citrix senior director of product marketing, said a commercial version of the tool should be ready to ship within a year, probably less, but Citrix hasn't decided yet whether it will be offered as part of XenSource, as a standalone tool, or both.

"It's definitely going to be packaged in a way that makes it extremely easy to adopt; I can't say if that means it will be bundled or free or sold for a token charge," he said.

It is not intended to be a "full-fledged money making product," he said, and the main goal is to make it easier for applications to move between different virtual environments, rather than being tied to just one.

The first technical preview of the tool will allow application workloads be exported to all three environments - XenServer, VMware's ESX and Microsoft's Hyper-V - but imported only to XenServer and Hyper-V, meaning a VMware server won't be able to import workloads easily from Citrix and Microsoft environments.

Klorese initially said that was a consequence of "timing," but added later that Citrix hasn't decided yet if the tool will import from VMware environments at all.

Asked if an equivalent tool exists today, Klorese said: "There are various virtual format converter tools out there, but they are built really with the idea that the application started in one environment and will then - as perfectly as possible, but often imperfectly - be imported over to the next platform. So it's really a difference of philosophy."

The Project Kensho tool is also aimed at independent software vendors, he said, and will allow them to develop applications that are ready to run in any OVF-compliant virtual environment, rather than being designed for just one.

The tool will work with virtualisation environments from other vendors, such as Sun and Oracle, if their products adhere to the OVF specifications, Klorese said.