ServersVirtually Speaking: Something to Chew On

Virtually Speaking: Something to Chew On

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Amy Newman

The emergence of virtualization has made the operating system more transient and less relevant. And that leaves Microsoft eyeing VMware’s mouth-watering market share.

As a general rule, Virtually Speaking doesn’t tend to comment on what others have to say about virtualization. There’s often too much real news going on to dissect the dissection.

But with VMworld over and the virtualization market partaking in what is sure to be brief breather, it seemed as good a time as any to sit back and survey the landscape.

Most interesting was a wrap up of VMworld by the often-irreverent U.K.-based Register. The article talks about how the show has grown from a niche partner demo event to the flagship gathering for anyone who is anyone in the virtualization market — including Microsoft. A good read, but it was the last, perhaps throwaway, line in the article that offers too much food for thought not to pass on:

“The Microsoft vs. Linux battle has grown so tired.”

No argument on that here. The operating systems battleground was quieted not with a bang so much as with a whimper. The religious wars over whether Linux is better than Windows, or Solaris is better than AIX ended not because of talent, victory or the zealots running out of steam.

The real peacemaker was enterprise awareness that interoperability removes the need to swear loyalty to one side, as well as the fact that the majority of operating systems standardized to find their way onto x86 hardware. In addition, enterprises began partaking in them buffet-style, and ISVs gave equal time to the operating systems their apps supported — as long as demand was strong. As a result, the operating systems themselves have become increasingly less relevant, while the applications that run on them are became where the action is.

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Need a Definition?

Then came virtualization, which changes the entire operating system game plan and diminishes, if not its importance, its role. With a virtual machine, more than one type operating system instance can be running on any given box. It means operating systems are transient and can flit from box to box. It also means the licensing model, and possibly how software is purchased, is not sustainable in this environment.

This strikes an arrow at the heart of Microsoft’s business model.

Microsoft, which is by no means an innovator, didn’t jump on the virtualization bandwagon immediately. Like many vendors, it likely didn’t realize that virtualization would get so hot, so fast.

To its credit, though, it acquired Connectix in February 2003 for its virtual machine technology. Not long after the acquisition, Microsoft released Microsoft Virtual Server. Despite being free, Virtual Server’s marketshare is small next to that of VMware ESX, which one could argue has become the de facto standard.

Microsoft is hardly stupid, and it would be foolish for any ISV to underestimate the lumbering giant. Its recent deals (e.g., with Sun and Novell) reflect acknowledgment that the halcyon days of a Windows-only data center are over.

Interoperability is here, and it’s a key selling point for data centers. With interoperability comes a new need, which just so happens to be even bigger for virtualized environments: management.

Microsoft clearly recognizes this. Earlier this month it announced pricing for System Center Virtual Machine Manager, its deployment and management software for virtual machines, which is a avilable for download now and scheduled to go gold next month. This version supports only Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, but the first update of the management tool (due at the same time as Viridian) will support VMware Virtual Infrastructure, followed by Xen environments.

Microsoft is late on Longhorn and later still on its virtualization component, Viridian, which at last check is expected to begin shipping in the second half of 2008. Whether VMware will be able to cling to its stronghold once Redmond flexes its marketing muscle is unclear. It’s doubtful customer loyalty will count for much — think back to Lotus 1-2-3 and Netscape.

Much has been written about how fast Microsoft may nip at VMware’s heals. VMware’s string of acquisitions and its ecosystem approach is perhaps its way of fortifying its customer base before the canons are aimed at the ramparts.

Will IT evangelists preach about hypervisorand management tools with the same passion as they did with Linux? Given that all three hypervisors are now commercial endeavors (Xen open source project, excepted), it seems unlikely. The virtualization space lacks much of the grassroots backstory that made many of the open source operating systems so unique.

While the hypervisor confrontation may lack Windows-vs-Linux-like fire, this is clear: VMware is now public enemy No. 1 for Microsoft, and its guns will be blasting as it attack the market share numbers.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch. She has been covering virtualization space since 2001.

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