Microsoft today lobbed three massive bombs into the server virtualization market. First off, it will now support - wait for it - Linux, when the OS is running on top of its Virtual Server product. Secondly, Microsoft has made Virtual Server free. And, in a move few thought possible, Microsoft has teamed with the developers of the open source Xen product to gang up on server slicing leader VMware.
Given these moves, we're reminded of the scene from Spaceballs when Lord Helmet orders an underling to thrust his ship from light speed to ludicrous speed. "Prepare ship, prepare ship for ludicrous speed. Fasten all seat belts, seal all entrances and exits, close all shops in the mall, cancel the 3-ring circus, secure all animals in the zoo..." shouts the underling.
Up until now, you've been able to run Linux on top of Virtual Server, but Microsoft refused to help out with any problems a customer might have with the combination. Not anymore.
Microsoft will offer 24-hour support to customers running enterprise and standard versions of Red Hat and Novell Linux in conjunction with Virtual Server 2005 R2. Beyond that, Microsoft plans to distribute "virtual machine add-ins" that make Linux guest operating systems work better with its product. The add-ins will help out with mouse and display driver functions, SCSI disk emulation and guest and host synchronization.
Microsoft will release even more add-ins with an update to Virtual Server 2005 R2 due out early next year.
"Customers who have questions regarding the interoperability with Linux guest operating systems and the virtual machine add-ins will be able to access the standard Microsoft support process," Microsoft said.
As with any product in this class, Virtual Server allows you to run multiple operating systems and applications on a single server and to move these "virtual servers" from physical server to physical server.
Now to the pricing front.
Above, we mentioned the upcoming update to Virtual Server. Microsoft had hoped to bring out this update in 2006 but, like all of its products of late, let it slip to next year. That's a particularly damaging delay given that it means Microsoft will fall behind rivals VMware and XenSource with regard to tapping into new virtualization-friendly hardware in server chips from Intel and AMD. The chips deliver serious performance and management gains by making it easier to set up virtual operating systems.
Microsoft's second product delivery problem comes in the form of its next-generation server virtualization software. Microsoft is the only major player not to use a hypervisor that sits directly on the server hardware at this point, preferring instead to run Virtual Server on top of Windows. That changes in 2008 or 2009 when Microsoft will bundle a hypervisor into "Longhorn" Server via a service pack.
Up to this point, Microsoft sold Virtual Server for $100 or $200, depending on the number of processors in a server. Now, it's throwing out the price, preparing for the bundling scenario a bit early. Customers can pick up Virtual Server 2005 R2 as a free download. Microsoft product marketing man Zane Adam made it rather clear that this move was intended as a blow against VMware.
"In light of this and other market trends, I believe customers will think twice before spending thousands of dollars for other virtualization products that very well could be at no charge in a couple of years," he said.
To be fair, VMware has a free version of its mid-market product in beta and this software stacks up well against Virtual Server.
One thing to keep in mind is that Microsoft does not really have an answer to VMware's high-end ESX Server product at this time. It won't until the hypervisor-based product comes out near the end of the decade. So, er, VMware has a big cushion.
However, Microsoft's moves and the increasing traction of the free, open source Xen hypervisor are going to make life more difficult on VMware, particularly in the large Windows market.
"With so many free, near-free, and built-in product out there, it's going to be increasingly tough for a standalone virtualization company to make money - especially if you look out 18 months or so," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff told us.
And that brings us to the third bit of the puzzle.
Microsoft uses something called the Virtual Hard Disk file format to capture virtual server images and pass them around physical boxes. It happens to have licensed this technology to open source specialist XenSource - the leading user of Xen.
Microsoft has not granted a similar license to VMware for rather obvious reasons, and VMware is not too happy with the direction things are taking.
So, VMware announced today that it has opened up its own virtual machine disk format and made it free of charge. "The virtual machine disk format specification describes and documents the virtual machine environment and how it is stored," the company said. "Patch, provisioning, security, management, backup and other infrastructure solutions for virtual machine environments all heavily depend on the virtual machine disk format. Based on this dependency, having an open and unrestricted virtual machine disk format is critical to the broad-based development of new solutions and value-add for virtual environments."
VMware's chief Diane Greene went so far as to start a new blog just to have a go at Microsoft's manoeuvering on the file format front.
Today's moves show quite clearly that Microsoft knows it has an inferior product at the moment and needs to stop customers from defecting to VMware and Xen and to stop potential customers from experimenting with the rival virtualization packages. Without a hypervisor-based product, Microsoft can't come close to matching Xen on performance and it's years behind VMware from a product maturity standpoint. Microsoft can really only cater to mid-market customers, which happens to be a huge market in the Windows arena.
With all the delays around its server virtualization products, Microsoft had to do something drastic. And, in fact, its move to free is the biggest blow against VMware's lucrative model to date - at least from a marketing standpoint.
VMware, however, still brings in more than $100m per quarter from its products, while Microsoft and XenSource bring in a few bucks here and there.
You can tell that VMware has become a major target for Microsoft and Xen and one that they're willing to go after together.
If you weren't paying attention to server virtualization, today's announcements should wake you up. Another battle for your operating system is on in a massive, massive way. And it's getting ugly quick.
You can find out more about Microsoft's moves from the Beast itself over here. ®