Microsoft Outlines Virtualization Plans

Updated: At WinHec, the software giant gives a timetable for hypervisor technology, and announces its intention to buy Softricity.

Microsoft announced that it will have a beta version of its upcoming hypervisor virtualization technology ready by the end of 2006, and will release to manufacturing a final version within six months of the release of its Windows Server "Longhorn" operating system RTM.

Microsoft made the announcements May 22 during the first day of its WinHec conference in Seattle.

Along with the hypervisor news, Microsoft also announced that a beta version of its System Center Virtual Machine Manager—formerly codenamed "Carmine"—will be released within the next three months, and that it also intends to buy application virtualization company Softricity.

The announcements come as more businesses turn to server virtualization as a way of reducing hardware and power costs and driving up the utilization of their systems.

Utilization rates for servers are usually in the 10 to 15 percent range. It also comes at a time when Microsoft is hearing criticism for being behind others—particularly VMware and the open-source Xen project—in virtualization technology for x86 systems.

Virtualization enables users to run multiple operating systems on a single physical server via virtual machines. It also can be used to view multiple physical machines as a single virtualized pool of resources.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., last year released Virtual Server 2005, which enables users to create virtual machines in Windows environments.

The hypervisor technology will allow users to more easily use virtualization and see better performance in these virtualized environments, Jim Ni, group product manager for server virtualization marketing at Microsoft, said in an interview with eWEEK before WinHec opened.

"With our architecture, we view our hypervisor as a very thin layer of code that sits between the operating system and hardware," Ni said.

Users will be able to hang from that hypervisor additional Windows services as needed, Ni said.

However, some industry analysts wonder if, by the time the hypervisor technology—codenamed "Viridian"—is released the market will want another hypervisor.

Longhorn isnt due until the second half of 2007. Already the Xen hypervisor is free, and VMware offers two hypervisor products—VMware Server and VMware Player—at no charge.

However, Ni and Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the server and tools business at Microsoft, who made the announcements at WinHec, said the Virtual Server tools are meeting the needs of users, and that the virtual machines created by the software will be able to be migrated to the hypervisor environments when the technology becomes available.

In addition, Virtual Server 2005 Release 2—which among other features offers greater support for Linux—was offered for free in April, and the result has been more than 200,000 downloads, according to Ni.

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At the same time, Virtual Server 2005 R2 Service Pack 1, which adds compatibility for hardware virtualization technology being rolled out this year by chip makers Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, is currently in beta and will be available for free in the first quarter of 2007.

Chris Burry, director of technology infrastructure practice at Avanade, a consulting group specializing in Windows environments, said Microsoft is behind its competitors in the development of its hypervisor, but added that there are a lot of customers satisfied with the current virtualization technology.

"By shrinking the distance between the virtual machines and the physical hardware, a hypervisor architecture can improve the overall performance of the environment," Burry said. "This change will also afford additional features and functionality such as large-scale SMP [symmetric multiprocessing] emulation within VMs, as well as closer integration with the storage layer.

"The price of coming late to the game with a hypervisor-based architecture is primarily opportunity cost. Microsoft will have some catch-up to do to establish relationships with customers that require this architecture, once Microsofts hypervisor solution is released. It is worth noting that Microsofts existing products will work extremely well with a wide range of workloads and are seeing wide adoption."

Burry also praised Microsoft for "doing an outstanding job leading the pack in terms of direction and vision. [Microsoft has] shown thought and industry leadership in its licensing model: Including four virtualized instances of Server 2003 with the Enterprise Edition is a very significant move, as is the per-processor approach to licensing Windows Server systems."

System Center Virtual Machine Manager offers a central solution for managing virtual environments, according to Microsoft. Having it as part of Microsofts System Center family of management products is an advantage.

"Customers tell us theyre not looking to bring in specialized tools and skills to handle their virtualized elements of their data center," Muglia said in a statement. "They want to make use of the people who are already trained on Windows."

Microsoft will use the Softricity deal to expand its offerings in the application virtualization space. Softricitys SoftGrid Desktop Virtualization Platform enables users to turn Windows applications into a service through virtualization and streaming technologies.

Microsoft officials point to these moves as well as the work theyre doing with chip makers and OEMs on virtualization technologies—such as I/O virtualization, which both Intel and AMD are developing—as proof of their commitment to the space.

Analysts also have seen some traction being made by Microsoft since the release of Virtual Server 2005.

Forrester Research said in a report in February that 20 percent of businesses looking at virtualization technologies in 2005 said they would consider Microsoft, a jump from 5 percent in 2004.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments from a consultant who specializes in Windows environments.

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