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Linux / Open Source

How One Small Startup Is Changing the Virtualization Landscape

In 2018, the open source project XCP-ng was launched. It was intended to be a complete virtualization platform based on the Xen Project.
Feb 23rd, 2021 11:00am by and
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Charles-Henri Schulz
Charles-H. Schulz ls the head of strategy at Vates. He is a technologist, cybersecurity expert, Free Software advocate and has spent many years in Open Source projects and cybersecurity policies.

Virtualization is everywhere. Whether in on-premise infrastructures, hybrid infrastructures or the cloud, whether you’re running VMs or containers, you’re probably relying on a hypervisor somewhere.

But virtualization has become such a common element in infrastructures that the existence of hypervisors has been practically forgotten. Innovation in this field has been considerably limited, while hardware (which is what all infrastructures in the world have in common) has continued to innovate.

In addition and contrary to certain major IT sectors (operating systems for example), virtualization has mainly remained in the hands of companies developing solutions that are both closed and difficult to get out of once implemented in your infrastructure.

It, therefore, seems curious to embark on a project such as developing a new virtualization platform, at a time when the sector is no longer so fashionable and the technology industry as a whole is dominated by several giants. But that didn’t stop the people behind the XCP-ng project.

Marc-André Pezin
Marc-André is Online Marketing Manager at Vates.

In 2018, we at Vates, a French tech startup specializing in Virtualization solutions, launched the open source project XCP-ng: Xen Cloud Platform — new generation. XCP-ng, forked from the Citrix Hypervisor solution, was intended to be a complete virtualization platform based on the Xen Project.

Less than two years after the start of the project, it’s now hosted in the Linux Foundation’s official Xen Project. On the community aspect, the project is a great success as it has a large and very active user community (more than 150,000 downloads and 3,500 active members on the community forum). On the sustainability side of the project, Vates presented at the end of 2020 the first LTS (Long Term Support) version of the project: XCP-ng 8.2. We even suggested that the pro support could go up from the current five years, to 10 years. Finally, on the technical side, the team of developers working full-time on XCP-ng has grown from three developers in 2018 to seven in 2020 and is actively contributing to the Xen Core project — as evidenced by the latest Xen security patch regarding a flaw in Xen’s handling of PCI passthrough.

Why XCP-ng Was Started

So, how did a small French startup located in Grenoble in the French Alps manage to make a place for itself in the virtualization sector, while bringing a breath of fresh air and novelty to the venerable Xen Project? Well, it was not exactly a blind shot.

We carried out a Kickstarter campaign prior to development and through this, we were convinced there was interest in a new virtualization solution, especially a fully open source one. While the campaign needed US$6,000 to be successful, the project raised almost US$60,000 during the 30-day campaign — a good start and proof that the virtualization sector did not yet meet all needs. In particular, the Kickstarter campaign was largely funded through companies outside of the project that could not find satisfactory solutions for their virtualization needs at the time.

Nor is XCP-ng a project that started from scratch. The solution benefits from years of development that had already taken place, not only around the Xen Project itself but also what had been accomplished by Citrix on XenServer. In fact, the Vates team was already well trained on this technology, since the company’s historical product, Xen Orchestra, was a web-based management, backup and administration interface in the Cloud.

XCP-ng is therefore based on solid and recognized foundations. Vates’ objective was to take advantage of its expertise and strong involvement in the open source world to bring to the Xen Project what it has always more or less lacked — a community of active users using and contributing to the project, a financial investment in order to innovate on the solution and to reinvigorate the Xen Project by promoting it at a larger scale.

What About the Xen Project and Citrix XenServer?

Let’s talk a bit about the Xen Project itself. Although it is widely known, few actually know the eventful history of this open source hypervisor and its tumultuous relationship with some of the biggest actors of the tech industry. Some of you may even think that the project is more or less at a standstill, or not very active at all.

The Xen Project hypervisor is an open source type-1 hypervisor (it runs on hardware!). The project was born in 2003 at the University of Cambridge, so it’s historically the very first open source hypervisor invented. Naturally, it attracted the attention of many companies. In 2007, Citrix Systems acquired XenSource and created its own version: XenServer, which added Xen Core and an API (XAPI). In addition, the Xen Project set up an advisory board with some of the biggest tech companies at the time (including Citrix, IBM, HP, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems).

It took some time, but in 2012, Citrix XenServer also became an open source project, with commercial editions available too. But XenServer lacked a developer community and overhaul, communication or even documentation around the project.

By the end of 2017, Citrix introduced even further limitations to the free version (for example, three hosts in a pool) and moved many useful features (for example, live storage migration and dynamic memory) from the free version to the paid commercial plan. In short, this is what led Vates to create XCP-ng. Combined with the fact that many features are locked away with paid licensing, things were not looking good on the open source front. Even on the development level, most of the latest features added in XenServer rely at one point or another on pieces of code that are not open sourced; making users, more than ever, unlikely to use XenServer from the source.

Vates is a French tech startup company that has specialized in virtualization solutions since 2012, so we were not very confident in the future of XenServer. Angry users surrounded Citrix from all directions, ready to migrate their infrastructure to VMware or HyperV in response to the changes Citrix had made. And as the main product of Vates until now, Xen Orchestra was exclusive to XenServer — so an unsure future for XenServer meant a potentially unsure future for Xen Orchestra. We decided it was time to take action. The XCP-ng project was launched less than a month after the XenServer 7.4 release.

The reason why Citrix chose to abruptly change the pricing strategy around XenServer may never be fully known. Our two cents however: Citrix’s strategy is not aligned with the Open Source world. We think that for Citrix, the future is in the Cloud and not in “on-premise” infrastructure. Consequently, in our view XenServer is only one small rung of the big Citrix ladder; only one step, and not even a mandatory one, to bring more customers to its larger product, XenDesktop.

The XCP-ng Project Has Only Just Begun

So that’s the past and present of the XCP-ng project. In a follow-up post, we will look at its future. We’ll also discuss what more needs to be done in the field of virtualization.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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