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Microsoft Makes Virtual Server Free, Releases Linux Plug-ins

Microsoft on Monday made Virtual Server 2005 Release 2 (R2) Enterprise Edition available immediately as a no-charge download. It also released plug-ins to let customers run leading Linux distributions on Virtual Server 2005, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 and Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9.

Previous to this week, Virtual Server 2005 Enterprise Edition cost $199, according to Jim Ni, group product manager for Virtual Server. The company also announced a 24-hour technical support model for Linux guest operating systems running on Virtual Server 2005 R2, aimed at encouraging customers to consolidate Linux-based applications on Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2.

Lost in the noise, though not insignificant, Microsoft also fired an apparent shot across the bow of virtualization leader VMware.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware on Monday announced that its Open Virtual Machine Disk Format (OVMDK) will be available for use by all comers under a royalty-free, public source license. VMware officials also said the company will support other broadly adopted virtual machine disk formats that are available under an open, royalty-free license.

Coincidentally or not, Microsoft on Monday announced it has now signed up 45 vendors to support its own Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format under a royalty-free license program. That’s double the number on board six months ago. The latest licensees include Brocade, Diskeeper, Fujitsu-Siemens, Network Appliance, Softricity, Virtual Iron and XenSource. Notably missing from the list is EMC, VMware’s parent company.

While cordial, both sides appear to be girding for a battle for ownership of the systems virtualization market a year or two down the road.

Meanwhile, VMware has its own entourage of supporters. “Software vendors like Akimbi Systems, Altiris, BMC Software, IBM, PlateSpin, rPath, Surgient, Symantec and Trend Micro are leveraging the VMware virtual machine disk format specification to develop value-added products for customer virtual infrastructure environments,” VMware’s OVMDK announcement said.

EMC bought VMware in early 2004 in a $635 million deal that, at the time, was seen as a potential shield from head-to-head competition with Microsoft. The Redmond giant had entered the market with its own purchase of Connectix in 2003. The Connectix acquisition gave Microsoft both its Virtual PC product as well as Virtual Server.

With the explosion of interest in virtualization, file formats have been developing into a key battleground for virtualization vendors. For one thing, there is demand on the part of IT customers to have compatible and standardized formats, for backup and restore as well as provisioning and managing virtualization infrastructures.

A virtual machine disk format specification describes and documents the virtual machine’s environment and how it is stored. VMware’s pitch is that, as virtualization spreads, every virtual machine vendor should have standard formats in order for IT staff to enable systems built using them to deal with them on a standard and integrated basis.

“The virtual machine disk format specification is critical to how virtual environments are provisioned, manipulated, patched, updated, scanned and backed up,” says a statement on VMware’s website.

Given VMware’s place as the dominant player in the system virtualization market, it isn’t surprising to see the company raise the open standards flag. After all, VMware claims to have more than 20,000 enterprise customers.

At the same time, there is something to be said for ubiquity. “[Microsoft’s VHD] is used by Virtual PC 2004 and Virtual Server 2005, and the format will be used by a future version of Microsoft Windows Server that includes hypervisor-based virtualization technology,” according to documents on Microsoft’s website.

However, Microsoft requires a license – albeit royalty-free – for the use of its VHD format, points out Diane Greene, VMware’s president, on her newly created blog.

“Is [a format specification] going to be a license free industry standard? If it is not and one company owns the license, they will have a defining control point over virtualization,” Greene wrote this week.

While this hasn’t added up to a head-to-head contest just yet, there is so much at stake – not the least, money and lots of it – that neither company is likely to withdraw.

“The stakes of the game have become very different,” says Dan Chu, senior director of developer and ISV products for VMware. “Three or four years ago, it was companies virtualizing four to 10 servers – now it’s thousands.”

In this case, Microsoft is going up against a smaller company – but not that much smaller. EMC brought in revenues of nearly $10 billion ($9.7B) in fiscal 2005. VMware contributed $387 million of that total, according to EMC’s annual report. By comparison, Microsoft is on track to gross about $44 billion in fiscal 2006, which ends in June.

But Microsoft’s virtual hegemony within the desktop and server marketplaces gives it a powerful leg up in an expanding market where it doesn’t already dominate. And the company appears to be in the struggle for the long term, even though it is coming from so far behind. Microsoft’s current Virtual Server solution runs guest operating systems on top of Windows Server 2003.

As the world moves to Longhorn Server, Microsoft is also readying a so-called “hypervisor” – a low-level control program that fits between the hardware and the operating system, and enables multiple operating systems to run on top of it – each in its own virtual machine. VMware’s product line is built around hypervisor technology, notably its flagship ESX Server.

But who has the upper hand?

“VMware looks agnostic and my sense is customers will go to VMware but, on the other hand, there’s something about free,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst for consultancy the Enderle Group. “To a certain extent, it’s a horse race [but] it’s not fair to compare vaporware to a shipping product.”

While Microsoft considers its forthcoming hypervisor as an integral part of Longhorn Server, it will not ship with Longhorn. Rather the hypervisor will ship “as part of the Longhorn wave” of products, Microsoft’s Ni says.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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