Microsoft Preps Virtual Server 2005 for Late 2004 Release

On Monday, Microsoft issued a public release candidate (RC) version of Virtual Server 2005, a preview version of the company's server-based machine virtualization solution. Going head to head with a similar server-side solution from VMware, Virtual Server 2005 can't hit the market quickly enough, in my opinion. With a multitude of soon-to-be-unsupported Windows NT 4.0 servers still running in the wild, Virtual Server 2005 plugs a huge hole in Microsoft's product migration strategy. More important, for enterprises and midsized businesses still plugging away with NT 4.0, Virtual Server 2005 is worth examining.

In a recent virtual meeting using Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2003, Eric Berg, group product manager for Virtual Server, and Ward Ralston, Virtual Server product manager, briefed various people at Windows & .NET Magazine about the product, and we received the RC code this week, so I'll be hammering on it over the coming weeks. But what I've found out so far looks interesting. Although I don't know whether Microsoft has a VMware beater on its hands, Virtual Server is clearly competitive, and that's not too shabby for a version 1.0 product.

For those of you unfamiliar with the acquisition, Virtual Server was the reason Microsoft purchased most of Connectix's assets last year; the company also got Virtual PC, a client-side solution for both Windows PCs and Apple Computer's Macintoshes, as part of the deal. When Microsoft approached Connectix in early 2003, Virtual Server was still very rough. "It was in an alpha state at the time," Berg said, but it clearly had promise, with interesting COM interfaces that could one day provide unique scripting capabilities. Over the ensuing months, Microsoft brought the Connectix team inhouse, redesigned Virtual Server, and put the product through a security review. The team shipped the first Virtual Server beta last November, shipped RC1 just this week, and the product is on track for a late 2004 release, Berg noted.

Because it's a version 1.0 product, Microsoft is concentrating on some core scenarios, which is an interesting area in which to compare the product with VMware, whose VMware GSX Server, VMware ESX Server, and VMware VirtualCenter products pioneered the server-side machine virtualization market. Virtual Server 2005 targets software testing and development, legacy application migration, and server consolidation--arguably the three most important areas for machine virtualization. I get the feeling the emphasis is largely on NT 4.0 migration, however. "We're targeting the highest-volume scenarios \[only\]," Berg told us. "VMware approaches things different because they're a virtual machine company; it's the only product they have... . Our approach is more nuanced and based on technologies we think fit the right kind of problem."

To this end, Virtual Server is managed from a Virtual Server Administration Web site, similar to what you see with Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) or Windows Rights Management Services (RMS). Microsoft will also integrate Virtual Server with its other management tools, such as Active Directory (AD), Microsoft Operations Management (MOM) 2005 (via a new management-pack add-on), Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), and Automated Deployment Services (ADS--through a Virtual Server migration kit), providing administrators with access to Virtual Server management from the tools they're likely using in their own environments. Virtual Server's stock management tools look excellent, even though the Web-based environment might initially seem limiting.

However, Virtual Server lacks a few niceties found in the VMware offerings. For example, the product isn't compatible with USB, a must-have feature in these days of pervasive USB keychain devices. And Virtual Server won't support 64-bit platforms for some time and might never support 64-bit virtual machines (VMs) on 32-bit systems, as VMware will. Also, Virtual Server runs only on Windows Server 2003 (and not Windows 2000), although you can run it on Windows XP for development purposes. And finally, Virtual Server doesn't directly support non-Microsoft OSs, such as Linux, largely because Microsoft sees the product as an NT 4.0 migration solution.

Architecturally, Virtual Server seems similar to VMware's offerings, with up to 3.6GB of memory per VM and the ability to dedicate one CPU to each VM. Virtual Server Standard Edition will support 4-way servers; the enterprise edition will scale up to 32-way servers with up to 64GB of RAM. The system appears to run fine on fairly low-end hardware; the demo system we saw was a 1GHz Pentium III with 1GB of RAM, and it was running three VMs fairly effortlessly. I'll test the product on my servers, however, before delivering a performance verdict.

Indeed, I'll need some time with Virtual Server and some future discussions with both Microsoft and VMware before I can declare either side victorious. But it looks like Microsoft's integrated management approach will win some converts from the Microsoft-oriented shops, while VMware's extra features--and better support for non-Microsoft platforms, including Linux--will win VMware other converts. This type of competition will result in better products from both companies. If you're interested in testing Virtual Server RC1, check out the Microsoft Web site. It's a free download. http://www.microsoft.com/virtualserver

Trojan Update
I still haven't resolved my Trojan horse problems, but I'm off to New York again, so I'll have to leave that machine behind for a few days. You might have seen news reports about a series of oddly familiar new Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) vulnerabilities that sound suspiciously similar to my experiences with the Trojan I have on my laptop, so I'll be following those developments to see whether any future Microsoft fix applies to my problem as well (see http://www.winnetmag.com/windowspaulthurrott/article/articleid/42953/windowspaulthurrott_42953.html for more information about the IE vulnerabilities).

And again, thanks for all the help: I've stopped counting the number of helpful responses I've received, but it numbers in the several hundreds and has yet to abate. Thanks so much: I'll try all the suggestions and present a conclusion when possible. I've had a few offers to image the machine and send the images for testing, so I might ultimately take that route. Frankly, I'm itching to just nuke that machine. It's overdue.

Also, based on feedback from several readers, I'm going to reinstall XP on my main desktop PC, take it off the domain, and try to live with a non-Administrator account on a nonmanaged box. I've been told by a number of people that this process is a lot less painful than it used to be, and I've frankly not tried it in a while, so I'll give it a shot. As with the Trojan dilemma, I'll have more information about that experiment as soon as possible. Thanks!

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