Virtualization Vendors Jockey For Advantage

Microsoft delays update for its Virtual Server software, licenses its Virtual Hard Disk format to XenSource.

Darrell Dunn, Contributor

March 31, 2006

3 Min Read

Suppliers of server virtualization technology are jockeying for position, as VMware seeks to retain its lead, Microsoft stumbles, and startups such as Virtual Iron Software and XenSource try to get noticed.

Microsoft delayed until early next year availability of an update for Microsoft Virtual Server that will support the hardware-enabled virtualization capabilities being built into Intel and Advanced Micro Devices processors. That update, Service Pack 1 for Virtual Server 2005 R2, was scheduled to ship in the fourth quarter.

Still, don't discount Microsoft's intention to redefine the virtualization space by building the technology into its Longhorn server, due out in 2008, through its own hypervisor code-named Viridian. Virtualization allows a single server to operate as multiple independent servers. A hypervisor is a close-to-the-hardware form of virtualization that can take advantage of virtualization hooks in microprocessors; it runs more efficiently than Microsoft Virtual Server or VMware's older GSX product. This week Microsoft also will begin making Virtual Server 2005 R2 available as a free download.

"Customers are asking why they should pay for virtualization," says Jim Ni, Microsoft's senior technical group product manager for server virtualization. "If you look at most organizations today, they're just dipping their toes in the virtualization waters." Given that, Microsoft's delay won't have a big impact, as customers wait for a lower-cost option, Ni says. "They are certainly thinking twice about spending thousands of dollars for a virtualization product that will be free in the future and part of the operating system," he says.

That's a not-so-subtle reference to VMware, whose ESX Server virtualization software has 20,000 customers despite its $3,750 price tag. Microsoft claims 5,000 customers for its virtualization software.

VMware, which this week will open its virtual machine disk format specification to third-party software developers, says IT managers are standardizing on VMware for thousands of production servers. "Customers need something that's proven and absolutely rock solid," says Dan Chu, senior director of developer products at VMware.

Younger Generation

Virtual Maneuvers

Microsoft Offers free Virtual Server 2005 R2 download, delays update until early next year, and offers virtual machine add-ins for Linux

VMware Opens virtual machine disk format specification for third-party development

Virtual Iron Debuts version 3 of virtualization management software and adds Xen hypervisor

XenSource Licenses Microsoft's Virtual Hard Disk format to compete against VMware

But it's the small vendors that are keeping things interesting. Virtual Iron, which has an equity stake from Intel, this week will unveil version 3 of its virtualization management software combined with the Xen hypervisor from open source vendor XenSource. Starting price: $1,500.

"Virtualization shouldn't cost more than the price of the server," says John Thibault, Virtual Iron's president and CEO. "We believe that over time the hypervisor and virtualization stack is going to be commoditized, and the real value is going to be in the management as we build a very viable alternative to VMware."

Microsoft, meanwhile, is forming what amounts to a temporary alliance with XenSource by licensing its Virtual Hard Disk format to the company. Xen 3.0 can generate Windows virtual machines as well as Linux virtual machines. The Microsoft license will let a new XenSource product, XenEnterprise, call up and manage virtual machines generated by Microsoft's Virtual Server engine as well as those generated by Xen. Virtual machines can be stored as a set of files on a hard drive; Microsoft uses its Virtual Hard Drive format for that purpose.

VMware has been gaining market share in the Windows arena, and Microsoft's move essentially commissions XenSource to compete against the market leader.

Shifting alliances, product delays, and emerging players? Virtualization market watchers might need to get themselves a virtual scorecard.

with Charles Babcock

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