Microsoft Brings Virtualization in House

Microsoft rumbled into the virtual machine market on Wednesday with the purchase of desktop and server virtualization product assets from privately held Connectix Corp. The move is certain to make virtualization a more mainstream technology among Windows users, but it fogs the outlook for current market leader, VMWare.

Virtual machine software allows users to run several instances of one operating system or different operating systems on the same computer, so they share processor and memory resources but each OS thinks it owns the machine. Depending on the approach, the technology can require a host operating system or can run directly on the hardware below all operating systems.

Microsoft bought two shipping products, Virtual PC for Windows, Virtual PC for Mac, and a beta product, Virtual Server. Through Connectix, Microsoft will continue to sell the desktop products. Microsoft moved quickly to allay Mac users' fears that it would abandon that user group by announcing ongoing development plans and trotting out an Apple executive to say that the product was "in good hands."

But Microsoft's biggest marketing emphasis surrounding the announcement has involved the Virtual Server product, which gives the company an exit strategy for its numerous enterprise customers running applications on Windows NT 4.0 Server and helps Microsoft compete with data-center veterans such as Sun and IBM's Unix group, which offer virtualization software on their platforms.

IDC analyst Al Gillen calls the purchase an important move. "Microsoft really needed to have a product in that space. One of the things that Microsoft got by acquiring Connectix is a product that supports Linux, and I doubt Microsoft would have supported Linux if they'd developed the product internally. [But] if Microsoft didn't support Linux, they would not be competitive."

Bob O'Brien, Microsoft group product manager for Windows Server 2003, meanwhile, says Connectix' development decisions on Virtual Server made their products attractive to Microsoft.

"The technology that they were building was very much in line with the kind of architecture that we would have done had we done a build decision on this particular technology -- a full set of Windows APIs, an architecture that's consistent with being able to support multiple instances of Windows NT 4.0 and using COM for extensibility."

Connectix had planned to ship Virtual Server early this year. Now the product will go through a full Microsoft pre-release cycle, including a Trustworthy Computing security code review, and isn't expected to be available until the end of the year.

When it does ship, it will run on a Windows Server 2003 host, and will support other operating systems as virtual servers, including Windows NT 4.0 and Linux, O'Brien says.

O'Brien positions the Connectix purchase partly as Microsoft understanding the way customers want to maintain Windows NT 4.0 applications even as Microsoft moves to end support for the seven-year-old platform. "A lot of these systems are very mature, very stable," O'Brien says. "They just want to be able to cocoon [that NT 4.0 app] and bring it forward."

He says there are three main scenarios in which Microsoft envisions customers using the product to host legacy applications written for Windows NT 4.0. One is to consolidate servers, bringing the virtualized apps onto fewer servers that administrators have to touch. Another is to retain the old app but get it running on newer hardware. "This really gives them an avenue to preserve that investment in applications and run them on modern servers." The third usage scenario is for customers migrating from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows Server 2003. "It gives them a huge amount of flexibility for doing migrations," O'Brien says, allowing customers to take the interim step of moving applications to Windows Server 2003 before actually doing the development work to port the application.

The new technology will fit into a three-pronged approach of technical tools for doing server consolidation in Microsoft environments. Virtualization is good for low-throughput applications; the hardware partitioning from IBM, HP and Unisys is better for higher-throughput applications; and the Windows System Resource Manager coming in the Enterprise and Datacenter editions of Windows Server 2003 is the third weapon in the arsenal, O'Brien says.

Because Virtual Server is a beta product, Microsoft has a lot of flexibility in how it will offer it. Although no final decisions have been made, O'Brien says the company is currently looking at offering Virtual Server as a post-release, add-on component that is essentially free for Windows Server 2003 customers. This approach is how Microsoft is handling Real-Time Communications services and SharePoint services. Full integration with the operating system would probably come about in the Blackcomb timeframe, O'Brien says.

That delivery plan could eventually drain the money out of the virtual machine server market, the way free Internet Explorer took the money out of the browser market, IDC's Gillen notes.

Diane Greene, CEO of VMWare, won't speculate about what would happen to VMWare if Microsoft follows that delivery route. "We'll monitor it closely if that happens," she says.

Greene does plan to aggressively push VMWare's substantial differentiators over the Connectix product line in the near term, and expects a bump in interest from Microsoft's high-profile purchase.

"I think the awareness about the usefulness and relevance of Intel virtualization has just gone way up because of this. People will say OK, let's get these products -- and we have one [on the market now]," Greene says.

VMWare's differentiators on the server side are several. One is, obviously, having a shipping product -- two in fact -- that will have matured through several versions before the Connectix/Microsoft version ships. Another is the ability to run VMWare GSX Server with Linux or pre-Windows Server 2003 versions of Windows as the host operating system.

A third differentiator is the capability of running VMWare ESX Server directly on hardware with no host operating server needed -- or paid for. IDC's Gillen puts that advantage this way: "The question is, are two Windows licenses more expensive than getting one VMWare license and one Windows license?" Also, VMWare announced earlier this week that it is pushing its product in a new direction with an add-on called VMWare Virtual SMP. Until now, Intel server virtualization has been a matter of slicing and dicing a single processor into virtual partitions. The add-on will allow users to create virtual machines out of dual-processor machines, and VMWare intends to roll out four-processor support later.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.


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