Virtually Speaking: The Ultimate Virtual Alliance

Amy Newman
SUSE Linux and Microsoft Virtual Server are the offspring of powerful players, yet they remain underdogs in two hotly contested spaces. Will joining forces give each the edge that it needs?

Much has been made of the Microsoft-Novell partnerships since its unveiling shocked the world last November. News has trickled forth since then. This week, another layer was peeled back on the agreement, and more details, some of which pertain to virtualization, were revealed.

Under terms of the agreement, enterprises will be able to host SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 from as a virtualized guest on an upcoming service pack of Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 service pack 1.

This really isn't news, as Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 has supported Linux guest operating systems since its release.

The other two components are more interesting:

  • Users will be able to host SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 as an "enlightened guest" on the next version of Windows Server (aka Longhorn) using the Windows Server virtualization technology.
  • Users can host Windows Server as a paravirtualized guest on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10, using the Xen virtualization technology embedded in the Linux operating system.

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Despite its strong mindshare, Microsoft remains an underdog in the virtualization space. Pretty much everyone has heard of Microsoft Virtual Server, but almost no one is using it in production. In a VMware-dominated universe (it has a 45 percent market share according to a recent Yankee Group survey), Microsoft Virtual server, claims 29 percent, or so the analysts claim. The virtualization vendors paint a slightly different, however.

Microsoft's presence, or lack thereof, was one topic that came up at last week's IDC Virtualization Forum 2.0 in New York City. According to SWsoft Vice President Kurt Daniel, "99.9 percent of the time we're running into VMware." Not Microsoft.

With virtualization deployments moving from test and dev and onto production servers, that's not terribly surprising. Especially given that despite being available for several years, Microsoft Virtual Server is still considered to be in beta, with a finite time frame for its existence. The ultimate plan is for it to end up as part of Longhorn — several releases down the road.

Then there's Novell. Novell is no stranger to virtualization. SUSE Linux, which continues to play second-fiddle to Red Hat, especially in the United States, beat its competitor to the virtualization punch when it rolled Xen into into SUSE Linux Enterprise Server last summer, resulting in a bit of a kerfuffle with Red Hat.

In the virtualization space, both are on their respective launch pads, and both have much to gain.

Microsoft should not be underestimated. It may be on the late to get its feet wet in the virtualization space, but it's never been on the innovator side. It's also been late to market before and come out on top (Internet Explorer, anyone?). It has the marketing muscle and penetration, not to mention deep pockets, to come up with a formidable offering, or at least a sales pitch.

Virtualization, unlike Linux, is not something Microsoft can ignore. Linux was another choice within the same model. Not so with virtualization, which in some ways presents an architectural shift, "The role of the operating system is changing. Parag Patel, VMware senior director of ecosystems alliances, told ServerWatch. "The hypervisor can do much of the hardware management the operating system was previously responsible for."

Patel adds that a hypervisor-centric model is well-suited to open source companies. Microsoft's current strategy, however, is centered around its operating system. In this new world, the hypervisor has the power of the operating system, and the operating system varies depending on the application, with multiple operating systems running on a single hypervisor.

A hypervisor that interoperates with many operating systems comes across as more open and is more attractive. Inversely, a hypervisor that locks itself into a particular operating system and therefore only compatible apps will not be as desirable.

For Microsoft, having SUSE in its back pocket gives it a foot in this new world and makes for easier entry, should the business climate require a completely altered model.

From the Novell side of things, SUSE has not provided the rejuvenation Novell intended and remains in Red Hat's shadow. The Linux pie got a even more broken up when Unbreakable Linux came on the scene last fall.

Presumably, partnering with Microsoft will set SUSE apart as Microsoft's "preferred OS for virtualization." Windows influence remains strong, and such a distinction is a huge potential boon in an expanding and still-not-understood niche — especially one that may be on its way to being a de facto standard.

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

This article was originally published on Feb 16, 2007
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