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Interview: An in-depth look at Microsoft’s virtualisation strategy.


On the day that Microsoft announced that it was going to start giving away Virtual Server 2005 R2 for free (April 3, 2006), Windows IT Pro News UK caught up with Alfred Biehler, product manager of Microsoft UK, Arun Jayendran, a senior product manager in the Windows Server marketing group and Chris Stirrat, a product unit manager in the Windows Enterprise Management Division, to talk about Microsoft’s wider virtualisation strategy and what it means for the competition.

Windows IT Pro News UK (WITPUK): How aware are Windows-driven organisations of the benefits of vitualisation?

Alfred Biehler (AB): My take on it is that we probably have two segments of customers out there. I think that some customers know the benefits and are probably using some form of virtualisation already and I think that they are well aware of the benefits but also the limitations of virtualistion. And then I think that there’s the customer base out there that pretends to know something about virtualisation but is really too scared to admit that they have no clue what we mean by virtualisation.

That’s not meaning any disrespect to those customers, but if you have never had that experience of seeing in a window the black screen, the BIOS logo, the memory counting, you sort of struggle to envisage “What does a virtual machine mean and how can it help me?”. So that is probably not in the Enterprise version as much but in the smaller business segment I think that is still primitive. Would do you agree with that?

WITPUK: I’m not sure how much even the enterprise people have a grasp of virtualisation, but it’s something that we’ve definitely seen in the Windows space quite a lot in the last two years.

AB: I think that you are right. But I also think, based on your question, that there are some customers that are believing more of the hype around virtualistion and think that it’s the solution to everything and I would caution against that as well. I think that it important to realise that it does have a place to play and it can add value but that it is not the solution to all our problems.

WITPUK: Why not?

AB: Well, that’s because virtualistion has some limitations.

WITPUK: Such as?

AJ: If you have an application or a workload that is performance-intensive or very I/O intensive, that workload is not an appropriate candidate to be virtualised. So what you would rather do is consolidate low virtualisation workloads onto a single physical machine.

AB: Just putting that in a slightly different way; if I currently have got a physical server with whatever workload on it, let’s say Exchange Server, and really it’s struggling with disk I/O then putting it in a virtual machine wouldn’t solve any problems. In fact, it’s going to create more problems if I try and move that into any virtualistion technology because the bottleneck would still be the disk I/O. So in some scenarios it might make more sense to actually leave some workloads on physical hardware. And in others it might make a lot more sense to move them into a virtual world, especially those that are not nearly utilising all of the hardware optimally. Those kinds of workloads, it makes a lot of sense to move into a virtualised environment; to consolidate, for example.

But there are other scenarios as well, as I think you probably well know. One of the areas where I personally got to know virtualisation earliest was around a test, an evaluation scenario. So if I wanted to evaluate, let’s say, SharePoint Portal Server then it’s a no-brainer for me inside Microsoft to copy that image onto my machine and to play with it and to see what it can and what it can’t do. And that kind of scenario is brilliant. But also from a development perspective, if I then on top of that image want to try something, I can try it and if it fails, or if it works, I can roll it back to the previous snapshot that I had of the image without any effort. So there are other scenarios where it makes sense, despite which workload we might be talking about.

WITPUK: How would you say Microsoft’s virtualisation solutions stack up against VMware’s products?

AB: Like everyone out there in the Microsoft world, we have some good competition with some other businesses and also cooperation with them. I think that there are some scenarios where our customers will benefit from having virtualisation technology that might not be our own. But, really, I think that our product is a brilliant product for the broader masses out there that need to have a solution in place without the need to think long and hard about buying the top-end product that might be very expensive or might require some specific things.

If you were a business that wanted, for example, to deploy a lot of servers for their development teams just to be able to test things on and develop on and roll back on, then Virtual Server can be a brilliant solution for that.

It might be that there are some niche requirements that you might have that might encourage you to actually look at some of our partners or even some of our competitors. And, in fact, we don’t try and play this as a Microsoft-only world, we’ve got a lot of things to actually make it easier for Microsoft customers to utilise virtualisation technologies despite the fact that it might be one of our competitor’s products. Like the Windows Server R2 licensing that we have announced for Enterprise Edition. That actually gives you usage rights for four servers running on top of a physical machine despite the fact that you might be using VMware or any other competitor’s technology in that space for virtualisation.

AJ: One of things I would like to add is that Virtual Server is the most cost-effective virtualisation technology designed for the Windows Server operating system. And in terms of the capabilities themselves, this product is the only solution that has a high availability solution for both planned and unplanned downtime. And as customers put more and more virtual machines on one single physical machine, high availability is the key scenario that they have to address and our solution addresses that.

If there is a hardware failure on one particular virtual machine, all the images are automatically migrated to another physical machine which is a scenario that customers really love so that’s one capability that we provide and EMC’s solution doesn’t really have a solution for both unplanned and unplanned downtime.

Chris Stirrat (CS): One of the areas that we are investing in pretty heavily in moving forward is in the management space, in our management products such as Microsoft Operations Manager, so we’re investing in those products to make managing a virtual environment much easier. And that is one place were we are somewhat unique in that Microsoft has an existing management infrastructure that is proved out there, and so that coupled with the Microsoft virtualisation solution is a pretty powerful thing that Microsoft can offer. We have a complete comprehensive solution for the whole stack.

AB: There is another important factor to consider when you are choosing virtualisation technology -- one of things that initially drove us to the point where we acquired some technology and then started to build virtualisation technology on top of the Microsoft platform.

Let’s say that I have got Exchange Server and I put it on top of a virtualisation technology running on top of Windows and something doesn’t work. Who do you blame? Is it Exchange that is broken? Is it Windows that is broken? Is it the virtualisation technology that’s broken? And if that’s a non-Microsoft virtualisation technology in there, then it just makes it a little bit harder to figure out who you phone first and complain about it. Whereas if the whole stack is a Microsoft stack then it means that you phone up Microsoft and you leave the problem with Microsoft. They need to solve it because it is one company and they need to sort out among the product team specialists where the problem lies.

WITPUK: Many pundits were surprised to see VMware going to EMC. How come Microsoft didn’t buy it?

AB: I am fairly certain that we have got enough confidence in our own technology and the direction that we are moving it towards to feel that it wasn’t necessary. In fact, if you look at the longer term direction of virtualisation technology, I think that everyone would agree that it is moving closer and closer to the operating system and we have already made it public that we believe that in the long wave of products our virtualisation technology will be built into the platform. So, if I can just spell that out to you, I think that some point in time in the future, you will see Windows Server Longhorn running on a server and virtualisation will be part of the operating system.

AJ: It will be feature of the operating system.

AB: You will be running Vista on your desktop and part of that operating system will have some kind of virtualisation technology within it. We have spelled out our path clearly. So if you just look at the future of any company purely basing their business on selling virtualisation technology, the future’s uncertain for those kinds of companies.

I am not specifically referring to any one of those, but I just think that’s worth considering if you make a big investment in acquiring a company or acquiring technology what the future is of that company in its own right.

WITPUK: Can you give the enterprise user an idea of what to expect over the next twelve to 24 months? We’ve already got Virtual Server 2005 R2, there seems to be a plan for Virtual Server 2006 Update. Where are you heading in the nearish future?

AJ: Within the next sixty days we will have the beta for the Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1 announced, so customers should have access to the product in beta form and this will have support for IVT, the Intel virtualistion technology processors and the AMD virtualisation technology processors and, in addition, we will have we will have integrated volume shadow service (VSS) support. . And we’ve announced that this product will RTM in the first quarter of 2007. And what we’ve also said is that the Windows hypervisor will be available in the Longhorn Server wave. So what that means is that it will not be available in the initial release of Longhorn, but it will be released subsequent to that.

AB: Today we are announcing a few new things at LinuxWorld that are actually dramatically changing what’s happening in the market space. The first thing is that we are announcing the fact that we have built and will be providing supported versions of the add-ins needed for Linux to run inside Virtual Server effectively.

So it means that if you are running Windows and Virtual Server running on top of Windows and inside that you run one of the many distributions of Linux that we support -- I think that currently there is nine on the cards like SUSE and Red Hat -- we will provide free of charge to customers of Virtual Server the technology that will make it very easy to run those versions of Linux inside our virtual environment. So that makes it easy to move house from one to the other, there’s more and more drivers, and makes sure that you can support SCSI, etcetera.

AJ: And the second thing is that we have announced a product support model for Linux guests running in Virtual Server 2005 R2, so customers can call Microsoft for support for these nine distributions and we will handle the support calls for all issues regarding interoperability.

AB: And one of the other things that we are announcing today is also a price change in our virtualisation technology. So keep in mind about what we said about the future, what we said about the competition and their challenges and the business model around this. We are announcing today that Virtual Server will be available for download from for free. That’s Virtual Server Enterprise Edition, so the full whack of the latest product will be available for free, so we will stop selling that.

WITPUK: What is the thinking behind the Linux announcements?

AB: We believe that we should make it easier for our customers to do the right thing. And the right thing we know with our enterprise customers is not to have everything running on Microsoft. There are some scenarios where it might make sense to use one of our partner products or one of our competitor products, as we discussed with VMware, as well.

In this case, we want to make it possible for our customers that need to run a component of Linux -- maybe it is part of a migration strategy to Windows -- to make it possible to run in a supported way, in a well known and trusted way. And this is one of the things we did to help play in the space to make IT more relevant, to make IT more accessible and more reliable to our customers.

WITPUK: So you are making Virtual Server 2005 R2 completely free. How much did it cost before?

AB: $1000. And we’ve recently announced a promotion where it’s gone down to $199 for Enterprise Edition, but that’s now gone down to zero.

AJ: It was $1000 for the Enterprise Edition and $499 for the Standard Edition and we made a price reduction to $99 and $199 on December 1. And now the Enterprise Edition is zero and we will no longer have the Standard Edition.

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