What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

Summary: When VMware’s main competition was a little company called Connectix (100 people to VMware’s 200), the two virtualisation teams were best enemies; staring each other down, going head to head and planning to crush the opposition and own the market.

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TOPICS: Windows
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When VMware’s main competition was a little company called Connectix (100 people to VMware’s 200), the two virtualisation teams were best enemies; staring each other down, going head to head and planning to crush the opposition and own the market.

When Microsoft bought Connectix and worked through the tortuous internal steps to get to a sensible virtualisation plan, switching from head-on competition to telling VMware what they were doing so everyone could plan ahead on the management tools front was a bit of a shock; when we caught up with him in Redmond recently Ben Armstrong (the Virtual PC Guy) told us he basically had to pinch himself at the first meeting.

Why did it make sense for Microsoft to do this, above and beyond being so big that it has to bend over backwards to be (and be seen to be) fair? It’s because to Microsoft virtualisation isn’t a product; it’s a feature. Just as Windows phones are Windows phones because they’re part of the overall Windows platform, virtualisation is a Windows feature more than it’s a platform in its own right. (This approach has some unexpected benefits, as Ben recently found; if you plug a UPC into a Windows Server but don’t configure the USB/serial port failover software, your VMs are still protected. The server notices it’s running on a machine with a battery and uses the default power management settings; when the UPS battery starts running low, it will shut itself down gracefully – and by default the Hyper-V virtual machines will be saved, ready to restart automatically when you power the server back up.)

I've been saying for a while that most virtualisation projects currently are strategic; I should probably say tactical because I mean that they’re specific projects virtualising a specific thing for a specific benefit. Virtualisation is a deliberate tactic or strategy for that project rather than the default approach. When the management tools are sufficiently mature and migration doesn’t mean choosing between buying identical hardware to migrate to or reducing your VMs to the lowest common denominator so you can migrate across a wider range of hardware, then we’ll all install everything virtualised; until then you’ll have to have a reason.

Ben Armstrong agrees but he calls it something different; he’d say that virtualisation technology is a commodity. Companies pick and choose between VMware and Hyper-V on a per-project basis; just because they used VMware for the last virtualised server doesn’t mean they won’t pick Hyper-V this time if it’s a better fit. Just as they might buy Dell servers this year to go with last year’s HP kit.

That’s not a problem for Microsoft, or at least not as much of a problem as it is to VMware. If you put in VMware, you might go and put Windows Server or SQL Server or Exchange or BizTalk on top of it, and you might choose System Centre to manage it alongside your physical servers. If you choose Hyper-V (free or with Windows Server), VMware has nothing else to sell you. That’s why the rumoured VMware Linux distribution (if it’s not a red herring caused by VMware hiring more folks to work on Linux-based ESX) would make some sense (for VMware that is); you can run Linux on Hyper-V, so you might pick VMware Linux and pay for VMware Linux support. The question is: would you?

- Mary

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

    In answer, Mary, to your final sentence: you might well, if only because each VM costs you money in the form of an OS licence and the processes required to manage them - especially in a dynamic environment. You don't obviously need one for Linux and the support costs are likely to be similar in any case, so they cancel out.

    All other things being equal, I'd go Linux.
    Manek Dubash
  • What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

    I'd suggest that things aren't quite that cut and dried, Manek.

    Firstly there's not a huge advantage in licence costs, as the Enterprise SKUs of Windows Server come with at least 4 VM licences - and there are unlimited VMs with the DataCenter version. Comparing fully supported enterprise Linux with Windows Server, the price advantage can often actually be with Windows...

    There there's the ability to use central management tools. VMware's tooling only supports direct management of the host hypervisor and managed deployment of VMs - so you'll need additional tooling for any client OS/application management. You'd probably need to roll your own management tooling for Linux apps with its own development and maintenance costs (or go the equally high cost BMC/Tivoli/OpenView route), while with Windows there's the whole System Center suite for a single pane of glass view of host OS, VMs, virtual network, and apps.

    There really isn't any clear blue water between Linux and Windows if you want a supported, enterprise-class solution. Yes, you can go your own with Fedora or Ubuntu Server, but you're not going to get the VM-certified OS, and you're certainly unlikely to get the para-virtualisation components needed for a fast, hardware-aware client OS.

    A debate that will run and run...

    <i>--Simon</i>
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

    and what I was saying is not 'would you go with Linux rather than Windows in your VMware VM?' but 'would you go with a Linux distro from VMware compared to all the other proven enterprise Linux distros?'

    VMware has proven itself as a virtualisation supplier, but beyond ESX does it have the chops for an enterprise Linux?

    <i>-Mary</i>
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

    Hi Simon, Mary - it has been a long time since we spoke.

    Anyway, just one minor thing, the various versions of 2008 Hyper-V R2 (the free one up) do have a feature that enables you to migrate VMs across different levels of hardware, so it no longer has to be identical hardware in the farm. There is one restriction, which is the farm has to be either Intel or AMD for this to work.

    The up-side is that a 4 year old server and a brand new one, providing it is all using Intel or AMD can live migrate VMs between. The down side is that for this to work, many of the great features of the CPUs on your new server are abstracted away to enable this to work. Depending on your needs this may be a great way to solve problems and lengthen the lifespan of your servers.
    david_overton@...
  • What Microsoft understands about virtualisation (and a problem for VMware)

    @doverton
    Hi Dave!
    "many of the great features of the CPUs on your new server are abstracted away to enable this to work"
    That's *exactly* what I mean by lowest common denominator. Naively speaking, I was surprised when I found out how hardware-bound VMs actually are and that you couldn't migrate between Intel and AMD servers - "it's all x86, isn't it?" I may be wrong in picking this up as a barrier to widespread virtualisation by default, but the stats I see say almost every company has something virtualised, but only 26% of servers run virtualised. That says there are still things to sort out before (but I'm not sure another distro gets us any further forward!)
    -M
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe