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Can VMware end Linux hardware compatibility problems?

VMware made announcements yesterday that might spell an end to one of the biggest problems facing Linux: Hardware compatibility. If you think you missed the hardware compatibility announcement yesterday, don't worry: The answer lies in VMware's ESX 3i, the Open Virtual Machine Tools announcement, and the announcement of a draft specification for a portable virtual machine format.

VMware made announcements yesterday that might spell an end to, or at least seriously mitigate, one of the biggest problems that has faced Linux since day one: Hardware compatibility. If you think you missed the hardware compatibility announcement yesterday, don’t worry: The answer lies in VMware’s ESX 3i, the Open Virtual Machine Tools announcement, and the announcement of a draft specification for a portable virtual machine format.

Linux desktop and server users are all-too-familiar with the problem of limited hardware support for Linux. You buy a new system, go to load Linux on the system and find out that one or more crucial components are not supported under Linux. Maybe you’re just ahead of the curve and the drivers haven’t made their way into the mainstream kernel. Maybe you’re running an enterprise distro that hasn’t rolled the drivers into a patch just yet.

No matter what the reason, this can be a serious problem for home desktop users and large organizations alike. VMware’s ESX 3i, however, promises to change that. While ESX 3i is not aimed at the driver problem, it has the nice side effect of making hardware support less problematic when ordering servers. You don’t need to know if Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4 supports the Acme Raid SuperCard, only that it is supported under ESX 3i.

The announcement that VMware’s Virtual Machine Tools will be released as open source means that any distro that wants to have support for VMware’s virtual devices should be able to do so — no more worry about compiling VMware tools, your favorite distro will probably come with the tools supplied as packages in the future.

Not for desktops, yet…

Now, all of this is taking place around the server now, but I don’t think that’s likely to continue. When I spoke to VMware’s Raghu Raghuram, vice president of datacenter and desktop platforms on Tuesday, he wasn’t disclosing any plans to provide desktop solutions, but it seems likely that VMware’s hardware-based solutions will trickle down from servers to workstations and desktops in fairly short order.

So picture the not-so-distant future: You’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to a new desktop, so you use something like Acronis or an open source tool to copy your physical machine to a standard Virtual Machine format.

You have your desktop OS or OSes stored as a virtual machine image on a FireWire or USB drive. You go to Dell, HP, or another OEM and purchase a desktop system without anguishing over whether the hardware on the system is compatible or not.

The system arrives, you plug in the external drive and copy your VMs over to the new system — or maybe you just run them off of external storage. No worries about hardware compatibility — as far as the virtual system is concerned, the hardware hasn’t changed, except maybe it sees a little (or a lot) more RAM or a few more CPU cores. You don’t have to worry about migrating data or any of that fuss — the same desktop just pops up on the new machine like nothing has ever changed.

One VM, many hypervisors

How does the portable virtual machine format play into this? Well, while VMware has a lead on other virtualization vendors in the hypervisor on a chip race, it’s not going to be the only player for long. Count on Microsoft, SWsoft, and Citrix/XenSource to deliver similar functionality within the next year or so — and probably others as well.

Not only will users be able to feel confident about hardware support, they’ll also have the option of buying hardware with different virtualization options, and still be able to run existing virtual machines.

This might sound a little far-fetched now, but a hypervisor on a chip sounded pretty unlikely just a few years ago. The future is looking pretty bright.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for linuxdlsazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks,,, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. You can reach Zonker at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

Comments on "Can VMware end Linux hardware compatibility problems?"


Why not use Linux “build-in” KVM?
And besides that, I’m not buying everyday a new machine. Once configured, it can run for years without shutting down. Before buying a new machine it would be smart, if they first check the Hardware Compatibility List.


“You don’t need to know if Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4 supports the Acme Raid SuperCard, only that it is supported under ESX 3i.”

This seems backwards to me, because it is Linux that has great hardware support: according to recent news, ESX uses Linux 2.4 to initialize the hardware before loading the vmkernel! I don’t see a lot of folks clamoring to write and bugfix drivers for VMWare ESX. It is true that if a driver for VMWare is *certified* for a given platform, then that can ease the testing and certification for individual OSes and distros. But a minimalist Linux environment running KVM or Xen will do the same thing, and Linux drivers will continue to benefit from collaborative development and testing. So while virtualization may help ease the driver burden in heterogeneous environments, VMWare is at no particular advantage over KVM or Xen in the long run, they merely have a lead in guest drivers at the moment.


its amazing how much abstraction between software and hardware you can have just as long as you have a standard Iinterface to implement.

its no wonder that more software defined equipment is also growing: software defined radios, transmissions, ect … just cheaper to make and can be configured differently for specific customers.

can’t wait until more books are published that explain the architecture of virtualization platforms and these types of hardware/software abastraction. – bridge patterns, strategy + dependency injection + provider models.

i just started xen but maybe i might stick to vmware.



This appears to suffer from a bit of putting the cart in front of the bulldozer…er, horse…

Certainly, open specs and standards are beneficial to everyone (Linux, and every other OS). I can even see some “trickle-down” drivers arriving through all of this. What I am having trouble envisioning is how AC’97 audio drivers will be improved by adding either an abstraction layer (software or hardware) or by genericizing drivers to perform the lowest common denominator of hardware operations.

I do not run Linux from within vmware, and to do so would (1) increase my administrative load, (2) increase my hardware requirements, and (3) remove any real benefits that Linux offers as an operating system.

I believe that the best title for this article would be:

“Can VMware end CORPORATE Linux hardware compatibility problems?”


for me VMware is good for linux newbies who wants to make experiments. . and administration :) moreover, the user (especially newbies) will not fear of breaking down the system if ever since he/she is using a VM. unlike when its installed in a desktop/server. BUT for me linux is about learning and exploring MORE.


Being able to put your entire desktop onto a thumb drive is certinaly a great idea when you are travelling or visiting friends/clients. Wish I’d thought of that.

The OS hosting the VM session still has to have native HW drivers. If a particular piece of HW only has Windows drivers then your particualr flavour of Linux can only run on that HW when hosted under Windows. Not the best situation but still better than not being able to use that HW at all.

Anything that aids portability is always welcome.


Can someone clarify – this ESX 3i VMware tool – still requires base OS to run underneath as the base OS, while VM would support ‘guest’ OS.



I don’t see this as anything significant. AFAIK ESX bundled their own OS (a redhat release). So you’re at the mercy of the ESX folks for host OS patches and drivers. Do you really think the folks at EMC are interested in applying the latest security patches to their redhat (vmware) distribution, let alone any of the new kernel modules? And I don’t see vmware taking advantage of the new VT technology coming out from AMD or Intel. I’ve used GSX quite extensively, and there’s a significan performance hit, not to mention the constant clock sync issues.
I wouldn’t waste my effort or money on vmware. XEN gives you excellent performance, is VT aware, and allows you to leverage the Host OS features and drivers, which you fully control. I see KVM (kernel virtual machine) as the follow-on to XEN, and it appears both Xen & KVM are using the QEMU drivers for device virtualization. So you create your VM’s under XEN, you “should” be able to readily run those under KVM.
If you’re thinking about Virtualization, Xen & KVM should be at the top of your list, and save vmware for doing your virtualization on a windblows box.


ESX does *not* run on (red hat) kernel 2.4. The linux interface is just that — an interface through which you can interact with the VMkernel. The linux that initially bootstraps the server is actually running on a VM. If you’re a fan of Xen, that’s great, I am too. But get your facts straight before you go making comments based on sloppy assumptions.


Look, quite frankly a lot of the posters are missing the point entirely here. VMware’s strength is in large to huge enterprise-class solutions. Where is Xen’s equivalent to VMotion (being able to move a running VM from one physical ESX server to another)? It is at the full-blown implementations with VirtualCenter controlling a bunch of ESX servers that VMware really shines – everything else is just a trickle-down effect to the desktop. It’s nice stuff and is intended suck you in to the larger and larger implementations. Take a look at VMware Lab Manager’s features sometime (basically a pre-packed VirtualCenter with ESX host and some other nice test lab-specific features) and tell me if you don’t start drooling (if you need to run a lab environment with a lot of different test servers, that is). justwally hit the nail on the head when he said the article should be titled “Can VMware end CORPORATE Linux hardware compatibility problems?”.

Let’s face it, you’ll never run HPC clusters or DB servers on VMware, nor would you want to run your gaming machine on it (at least not until we all have 16-core CPUs with 1TB RAM… ;] ) – that would be entirely missing the point. VMware is there to help you create isolated functional silos that have their own library version requirements, etc., without having to deal with the nightmare of trying to install multiple incompatible SW packages (just to clarify: that is more of an issue with Windows servers and DLL hell rather then Linux machines, of course… ;] ). Each of these machines can be completely underutilized but you gain gigantic benefits of snapshotting the VM image before a SW upgrade to give you an instant way back in case the upgrade bombs (a huge corporate requirement) and having separate environments. Believe me, in a corporate environment with literally tens of thousands of servers, VMware is every admin’s wet dream.

For the end user I find that it’s nice to be able to run Windows inside my Linux desktop in case I really need to run some Windows apps. It’s easy right now for me to use VMware since that’s what use in a corporate environment as well. However, having an open source image format is a very smart move on VMware’s part, since it will increase support, get the OS community involved and create an even bigger ground swell of support. Now, granted, as mentioned in the article, if we can get to the point where the hypervisor (the piece of SW that emulates the HW and runs the VM) is embedded in a chip or has so little overhead that it’s effectively unnoticeable, yeah, sure, I’m going to run a VMware install as my base OS as well to avoid all the other hassles of moving machines, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice every time you do an upgrade to be able to just move the VM image and you’re done!? No lengthy reinstallations, reconfiguring all your SW, etc. Again, a properly installed Linux distro with all my customizations in a /home partition should make this a lot easier than Windows, but for a Windows install this would be great. Even Linux installs would benefit though, since instead of a couple of hours to set up, it would now take me a couple of minutes to get an identically-configured machine up and running. Shoot, I could even keep the old one up and running while I test the new one and make sure everything’s working fine.


Well, for those that want to use Windows software and Windows drivers for their hardware, this may be exactly what they are looking for. I believe VM ware is impressive in what it can do and how it seems to work in a flawless manner. Great software and well worth the cost considering what it will do.
I use linux, I like Mac and XP for different reasons but when it comes to hardware, I shop for hardware that will meet all 3 OS requirements. Now for an example : The HP 1022 B&W laser printer gets a mediocre review from most professional reviewers and a better than average review from most consumers but it gets a high review from me. Why ? It will run on Windows XP,
Mac 10.2 or higher, Xandros Professional 4.0 which is a Debian based, commercial version of Linux. Now this machine is noisy, inexpensive and you don’t have to unplug it when jumping from Windows to Linux as in a dual boot system. You will, of course have to unplug the USB cord and plug it into a Mac from a PC. My suggestion is try to buy what works for you, avoid OS’s that are new, lack support, lack drivers or give problems that you may not be aware exist until you bought it. Vista is not alone, there are distro’s in linux, Mac and Unix that have limited drivers for hardware, limited software available and unknown, buyer beware issues yet to be discovered. My advice is spend more, get more flexibility with a Mac and VM ware as this combination will run Windows OS and programs with less problems than Vista alone.


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