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Microsoft's Support Of Linux Shows Rising Importance Of Virtualization

Its hand may have been forced. Competitors are moving fast as Microsoft's offerings are delayed.
Unwilling To Commit
Nonetheless, Microsoft's Linux move caught the attention of Sabre Holdings, an extensive user of Linux and other open source software whose servers help keep the world's airline reservation systems running. Sabre inherited many Windows servers through acquisitions, including a $1.1 billion buyout of travel company Lastminute.com. Microsoft's support for Linux virtual machines on Virtual Server may let Sabre bring its Linux applications inside Lastminute's data center without overturning existing operations, says Todd Richmond, Sabre's VP of strategic architecture.

Richmond also sees promise for virtualization to meet spikes in demand in its Linux server environment, because virtual machines can be activated more quickly than new hardware. The greatest benefits of virtualization are in improving disaster recovery and lowering administrative, hardware, and software costs, according to a survey conducted last month by consulting firm INS.

Sabre is looking at how it will use virtualization and plans to implement it next year. More than eight in 10 companies are exploring, testing, or using the technology, the INS survey of 100 IT execs finds. That sounds high, but it would help explain Microsoft's recent sense of urgency. Its Service Pack 1 for Virtual Server R2, which will use virtualization hooks in the Intel and AMD chips to speed Windows and Linux virtual machines, will be in beta in 45 days but not generally available until next year.

Customer Needs
Virtualization has its problems: 31% of companies in the INS survey cite staff expertise as the biggest one, and 30% cite identifying apps that can run on it. Thirteen percent cite finding a return on investment. "In many cases, virtualization software is more expensive than buying an actual server," says John Engates, CTO of Rackspace Managed Hosting, which uses Windows and Linux servers and Virtual Server. Now that Microsoft and VMware are giving away their base virtualization products, Engates sees the math improving. He'd also like to use one vendor for virtualization technology and management tools.

Microsoft is seeding the virtualization market by licensing the format in which Virtual Server virtual machines are stored on a hard drive, like it did with last week's XenSource deal. If small vendors adopt that format, their software will generate and configure the virtual machines, but Microsoft's System Center will be able to manage them, Ni notes. Microsoft has licensed its Virtual Hard Disk format to Akimbi, PlateSpin, Softricity, and 40 others.

Back at RSA, the company is considering moving virtualization beyond its development and testing operations. Rezac predicts the next generation will let IT managers do production deployments of critical databases, Microsoft Exchange E-mail, and other servers as virtual machines on a single piece of hardware. The time virtualization saved his developers has him convinced. "We now have a real drive to do more virtualization," he says.

Virtualization has caught the interest of technologists, and it has persuaded Microsoft to co-exist with its biggest operating system rival, Linux. Now the vendors just need to deliver on the technology's promise.

-- With Larry Greenemeier and Elena Malykhina

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