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Microsoft Ships Virtual Server 2005 SP1 Public Beta, Talks Longhorn Virtualization

   At the Microsoft Management Summit 2005 in Las Vegas this week, Microsoft unveiled a public beta for Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which enables Virtual Server 2005 to run natively on both 32-bit x86 and 64-bit x64 server hardware and to support hosted Linux environments. Microsoft also discussed its plans for virtualization in Longhorn, raising questions about whether the Virtual Server product would be integrated into Longhorn Server. Fear not; I have the scoop.

But first, let's discuss Virtual Server 2005 SP1. First released in September 2004, Virtual Server 2005 builds on the client-side Virtual PC product line that Microsoft acquired when it purchased the virtualization assets of Connectix early last year. Virtual Server 2005 lets you test and develop software and consolidate servers by using virtual machines (VMs) running on one large server and managing those VMs via a centralized console.

With SP1, Microsoft is broadening the Virtual Server product dramatically. SP1 will support non-Windows virtual machines, including Linux, for the first time. (Under Connectix, Virtual PC natively supported Linux.) "We know folks are going to want to run Windows systems and Linux systems and other systems together on top of our Virtual Server and Windows," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said during a keynote address. "You'll see support for that \[when SP1 ships in final form\] later in the year."

SP1 includes numerous performance improvements. According to the company, some testers are seeing a 50 percent decrease in CPU utilization after installing the SP1 beta. SP1 will also include native support for x64 hardware and the x64 editions of Windows Server 2003, which will ship next week. Ballmer noted that the company will license to third parties the VHD virtual hard disk format that Virtual Server and Virtual PC use and will support the format in a variety of Microsoft server products this year.

Microsoft is also shipping Microsoft Virtual Server Management Pack for Microsoft Operations Manager 2005. The management pack lets administrators monitor the health and performance of their virtual server and the associated VMs, according to Microsoft Program Manager Jeff Woolsey. Eventually, the management pack will let MOM customers monitor Linux VMs.

As for the future of virtualization at Microsoft and the company's plans for Longhorn Server, Ballmer and other Microsoft representatives were vague. Ballmer noted that during the Longhorn Server timeframe, Microsoft will make its VHD format extensible and open it up to third-party modifications. The company will natively support hardware-virtualization technologies from microprocessor makers Intel and AMD. And Microsoft is working to make the Virtual Server hypervisor technology "smaller and thinner and very rich" in the Longhorn Server timeframe. Hypervisor is the software layer in virtualization products such as Virtual Server that lets a hardware processor run multiple OSs simultaneously.

Many people have speculated that Microsoft will stop selling a separate Virtual Server product and bundle that technology into Longhorn Server because of a Ballmer comment about introducing hypervisor technologies "around" Windows. Interestingly, Microsoft declined to comment on that possibility. Certainly, if the virtualization features were small and light enough, such bundling would be possible. On the client, future Windows desktop versions might maintain backward compatibility by simply using a Virtual PC-like software layer. The question is, will any of these developments happen?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes--but not in time for Longhorn Server. According to Microsoft sources, the company is currently working on a next-generation hypervisor that integrates with the Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) nexus and will supply what the company calls "meta-OS" support. It's unlikely that this new technology will see the light of day before 2008, however--well after Longhorn Server ships.

In the meantime, Microsoft is busy improving its Virtual Server product to better compete with VMware's more capable line of virtual-machine technology products, and a future version of the System Center Capacity Manager, code-named Indy v2, will handle virtual-machine capacity planning. For more information about Virtual Server 2005 SP1 or the public download, visit the  Microsoft Web site.

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