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Microsoft Frees Virtual Server, Supports Linux

The recent price wars in the software virtualization market remind me of the doomsday predictions about all-out nuclear war: The theory is that both sides will pummel each other into the ground until nothing is left standing. And if this week's virtualization announcements are any indication, Microsoft has just moved to Def Con 1.

It all started back in January when Microsoft lowered the cost of Virtual Server 2005 R2 from $499 for the Standard Edition and $999 for the Enterprise Edition to $99 and $199, respectively. VMWare responded by rebranding its GSX Server product to, well, nothing, making the product completely free.

This week, Microsoft returned the volley. At the LinuxWorld trade show in Boston, the company announced that Virtual Server 2005 Enterprise Edition R2 would be free for all comers, in both 32-bit and x64 versions. Additionally, for the first time Microsoft is now supporting certain Linux distributions running within Virtual Server. And the company announced that 45 partners have signed up to license its VHD virtual hard disk format. Let's examine each of these announcements.


With Virtual Server matching VMWare Server's no-fee-based licensing model, you might think that this is probably a good time to begin comparing both products from a feature standpoint. Microsoft says that Virtual Server and VMWare Server are similar, but that its holistic, long-term plans for software virtualization will ultimately give it a huge advantage over VMWare. Today, Virtual Server and VMWare both sit on the application layer of the underlying server. But Microsoft believes that virtualization should be a feature of the underlying operating system. And the next version of Windows Server, currently known as Longhorn Server, will include this functionality.

In Longhorn Server, a new feature called the Hypervisor will logically sit as a thin layer under the operating system. This change has multiple advantages over today's application layer virtualization platforms. For example, this new virtual machine (VM) layer will integrate more tightly with the OS, and will perform better because there is lower overhead. Furthermore, because Microsoft will utilize the same VHD format in the Longhorn Hypervisor, customers have a clear migration strategy.

In short, Microsoft's move to zero-cost licensing isn't so much about cost as it is about product positioning. Today, you can get no-cost virtualization platforms that sit on top of Windows Server. In the future, this functionality will simply be part of Windows Server.

Linux Support

When Microsoft purchased Connectix back in 2003, it promptly dropped one of the features that made Connectix's products so great: Linux support. Microsoft's versions of Virtual PC and Virtual Server, so far, have supported only various Windows versions, OS/2, and MS-DOS, whereas Connectix also supported various Linux distributions. Since then, customer complaints have driven Microsoft to reevaluate this stance, and as of today, you can now download free VM add-ons for various server-based Linux distributions that make these systems run more efficiently and integrate more closely with the underlying host OS.

But supporting Linux isn't just about providing native support for popular distributions. As part of its move toward supporting Linux, Microsoft will also provide 24-hour support for Linux distributions running under Virtual Server. Supported versions of Linux include Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 and SuSE Linux 9.2/9.3/10.0, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 (update 6), Enterprise Linux 3 (update 6), Enterprise Linux 4 and Red Hat Linux 7.3 and 9.0. Yep, we're in Bizarro World all right.

VHD Ecosystem

Microsoft previously made its VHD format available for free licensing and this week the company announced that 45 partners, including ISVs, storage partners, networking partners, management partners, and others have signed up to support the format. This will allow, say, management products to more seamlessly manage systems that are running inside VMs, because they will be aware of the differences between that environment and a true hardware-based system.

By staking this claim to the VHD format, Microsoft is also giving customers a long-term value proposition, ensuring that virtualization investments today will pay off into the future. This week's announcements are interesting on one level, but the way they play into future plans is perhaps all the more important. The next deliverable from the Virtual Server team, incidentally, will be a Service Pack 1 (SP1) release, now due in early 2007, that takes advantage of new virtualization platforms being offered by AMD and Intel. A different team, I'm told, is working on the Hypervisor layer for Longhorn Server, which is due in 2007 as well.

When you combine this week's announcements with previous Microsoft virtualization moves--primarily the licensing advantage of Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition, in which you can host up to four no-cost VM versions--it's clear that Microsoft is serious about virtualization as both a platform and a long term strategy. I expect VMWare to meet or beat Microsoft from a capabilities standpoint, at least in the short term, but I'm curious to see how they'll respond to Microsoft's moves in integrating the Hypervisor into Windows Server. (Actually, I don't have to wait: VMWare's Diane Greene literally just started a blog, and in her first entry, she discusses the benefits of decoupling virtualization from the OS. Refer to the link below.)

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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