These guys have been talking to each other. Over the last two weeks, there has been a rash of announcements from a number of leading vendors pledging support for new open virtualisation standards.

The plans pointedly do not involve Microsoft and could be seen as encircling the Redmond giant in the booming virtualisation market, which most observers see as becoming of growing importance over the next few years. Both Intel and AMD will build virtualisation hooks into their upcoming products, for example.

The consortium that's pushing this forward is led by virtualisation product specialist and EMC subsidiary VMware, which has announced last week that it's to open up its source code under a royalty-free licence. This means that VMware's partners will be able to contribute their own shared code or create binary modules to help with interoperability and integration. An architecture board from VMware will help manage partners' contributions and suggestions.

VMware product director Karthik Rau told us that: "We're approaching this as a neutral industry effort because standards benefit everyone. We're trying to bring best of the open source and commercial models together, so ISVs and others can contribute to an industry-standard platform, and to the code base. They can also develop black box functionality so they can retain the IP. For example, system vendors may choose to build customisations specifically for their hardware."

VMware president Diane Greene added: "Virtualisation is gaining widespread adoption due to its indisputable customer benefits. It is an area rich in opportunities and the ecosystem will develop most fully with open standards. We look forward to this next phase of increased partner collaboration and believe it is the best possible way to give customers the ability to realise the full potential of the x86 virtualisation layer."

Who's involved?
Partners in the venture include AMD, BMC, CA, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Novell and Red Hat. IBM also issued a new product, Virtualization Engine 2.0, saying that it will work to develop standards in the industry so with the aim of improving inter-operability across vendor boundaries. IBM's new product provides a portal that allows you to view system resources across the enterprise, along with management tools for virtual servers, and hooks into Big Blue's existing systems management tools.

IBM reckons that take-up of virtualisation has been slow because of the technical challenges, especially with respect to the way systems are managed. The way that the consortium aims to fix this problem is a much deeper level of collaboration that has previously been the case, even outside the open source arena.

The benefits are numerous, say the members -- hardly surprising of course. The key benefits include faster development of new virtualisation technologies and products, and better inter-operability.

Among the technologies we could expect to emerge from the initiative is a set of open hypervisor standards. The hypervisor is a fundamental element of VMware's virtual infrastructure and enables the system to be partitioned into separate virtual machines. With that in mind, VMware is opening its framework of interfaces, called Virtual Machine Hypervisor Interfaces (VMHI) based on its virtualisation products. The company reckons this allows other software vendors to build products addressing its open source hypervisor directly, while accessing the source code means members of the consortium can influence the governance of VMware's flagship product ESX Server. The company says this "still preserves the ability of partners to build differentiated, intellectual property-protected solutions."

Specific areas ripe for development according to VMware include:

• Cross-platform frameworks that govern the standardised operation and management of standalone virtual machine environments as well as data centre-scale deployment of virtualised systems.

• Co-operative virtualisation APIs between hypervisors and guest operating systems.

• Virtual machine formats that enable virtual machine migration and recovery across platforms.

Customer reactions
Customers are pleased too. "Guardian Life Insurance has standardised on VMware ESX Server for our Wintel environment across the organisation," said Guardian Insurance's infrastructure chief Bob Mathers. "Using VMware we have consolidated and deployed hundreds of virtual machines throughout our environment realising lower TCO, more efficient disaster recovery, rapid server provisioning, flexible zero-downtime workload migration and server containment. We are excited to see VMware's leadership in bringing together all the leading infrastructure vendors to drive their proprietary innovation in concert with VMware virtual infrastructure technology."

"This is a very exciting development," said Martin Wickham, CIO for BT Ireland. "Standardising on VMware virtual infrastructure in our test and production environments is yielding many benefits, including reduced costs, more efficient disaster recovery and instant server provisioning as well as providing a key component in the creation of a 'utility' based infrastructure. We are pleased that VMware continues to innovate by working with other vendors for industry standardisation because it will further enrich the platform and its integration with a broad array of application software. I look forward to the future developments."

Wider considerations
What's clear is that most of the industry appears committed to greater collaboration, using deeper code access as a mechanism, to improve the way that products interoperate.

However, this move is not being made under the auspices of the General Purpose License (GPL), the form of words under which, for example, most Linux distributions are redistributed.

Rau explained that, "We're not giving away redistribution rights. The deal is only for code access not a royalty-free distribution licence. We see it as enabling an ecosystem and the building of standards so ISVs can differentiate their products. ESX Server is still going to be distributed the same way, as a commercial product, we are just offering deeper access."

According to Rau, this remains a unique move -- neither open source nor closed commercial software. What it blatantly is however, is a line of wagons surrounding Microsoft, which has a product offering in this area that's limited by allowing only Windows to run inside its virtual machines. Rau didn't deny that this might be one element of the motivation behind the move.

"We would like Microsoft to be involved and intend to discuss this with them", said Rau. "But I don't know if they'll want to be."