Microsoft's virtualization hypervisor needs Red Hat support, too

Microsoft and Novell announced today the opening of a 2,500 square foot lab in Cambridge, Mass. where engineers from both companies will code and test interoperability of their respective virtualization technologies.
Written by Paula Rooney, Contributor

Microsoft and Novell announced today the opening of a 2,500 square foot lab in Cambridge, Mass. where engineers from both companies will code and test interoperability of their respective virtualization technologies.

The news comes a day after Microsoft announced imminent availability of the first test version of its Viridian virtualization hypervisor, which is expected to offer decent support for Xen virtual machines due to the company's other interoperability alliance with XenSource. Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 incorporates the Xen open source hypvervisor, as does Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux 5.

The Community Technology Preview (roughly equivalent to what used to be called alpha software) is the first public look at the Viridian technology but it won't have the Linux compatibility code built in when it is released later this month, Microsoft acknowledged. Customers won’t be able to test Linux support until the beta release of Viridian ships in mid 2008.

With efforts such as the interoperability lab, Microsoft is reinforcing its promise that when its hypervisor actually ships -- now slated for late 2008 -- Novell's SLES-based virtual machines will sing nicely on the Windows server platform.

That's not all. On Sept 12, Microsoft and Sun also announced an expansion of their alliance in which the two companies will ensure that Sun's Solaris VMs runs well on Windows and Windows runs well in a virtualized state on Solaris.

But what about Red Hat's Xen-based virtual machines?

The competitive standoff with Red Hat notwithstanding, Microsoft must realize by now that unless it extends the same level of compatibility to Red Hat Enterprise Linux and all other Linux distributions on its hypervisor that this gesture at interoperability is meaningless.

Microsoft's alliance with XenSource once provided some measure of confidence that Red Hat would run as well on Viridian as Novell’s Linux. But Citrix's planned acquisition of the open source XenSource calls that into question.

Citrix is one of Microsoft’s closest longtime allies in the proprietary software world and to date has not participated in the open source market. As Microsoft announced the planned release of the Viridian CTP yesterday at VMWorld, for example, it also unveiled an extended virtualization alliance with Citrix to standardize on Microsoft's Virtual Hard Disk Format as a common run-time environment for virtualized operating systems and applications. That’s not surprising, given Microsoft’s former agreement with XenSource on VHD.

But the tightening triumverate of Microsoft, Novell and Citrix -- three longtime proprietary software companies cooperating on virtualization technology -- makes more than a few open source advocates and customers uneasy.

And the agreement with Sun on Wednesday -- ensuring Solaris Linux runs well on Windows virtualization hypervisor -- leaves Red Hat alone in the cold.

Dissing Red Hat is silly. Such arrogance and competitive posturing is typical of Microsoft but it could backfire if it pushes its two key rivals -- Red Hat and VMware – even closer together.

As the line between the operating system and hypervisor fades, the stakes are high and the competitive dynamics can change in a moment’s notice. Dana's excellent piece on VMware's plans to open source tools on SourgeForge and new deal with Canonical demonstrates that company's growing openness to partnering with open source vendors. Moreover, Mary Jo Foley's piece on the Sun-Microsoft agreement illustrates the increasing level of cooperation among rivals in the virtualization software market.

Microsoft is the underdog in this market and needs to make peace with Red Hat now on the virtualization front to advance its agenda with Viridian.

I asked Mike Neil, Microsoft's top virtualization executive, to comment on some of those issues. He said Microsoft's partnerships with Novell and Citrix's XenSource on the virtualization interoperability front -- and joint efforts such as the interoperability lab -- in no way precludes Red Hat from offering the exact same level of compatibility for its VMs on Viridian.

The Viridian APIs Microsoft provides, and the interoperability code XenSource is developing for Viridian, ensures a level playing field for all Linux vendors, he claims. "We'll provide Microsoft technology that works on different Linux distributions. We'll make that information around Viridian available through APIs .. so that if another vendor wants to take the time and do the optimization, there's nothing stopping them from doing that."

He added that Windows’ Viridian will support Xen but is not a Xen knock off and will compete vigorously against all Xen-based Linux distributions in the marketplace.

"The partnership with XenSource is to develop technology that allows Linux to run well on Viridian technology and we'll deliver that to the customer as part of the beta release," Neil said. "And then we're working with Novell to optimize the SLES experience on top of Viridian ... but Novell is developing it on their own."

He also insisted that its partnership with XenSource on Viridian does not mean there will be hidden or special hooks that favor one Linux distribution over another. Still, it appears Microsoft intends to hold on to something of unique value out of the deal with XenSource.

"We'll have rights to that that technology. We'll make it available as part of the beta.. its technology you need to install in Linux and will be available as a download like Linux [code] for [Microsoft Virtual Server]."

Microsoft's monopoly in the Office suite market gives it ample room to toy with interoperability with OpenOffice. But this is not the case in the virtualization software market. VMware overwhelmingly dominates the virtualization software market and Microsoft cannot afford to play games

Going forward, Microsoft must ensure that all Linux virtual machines -- especially those created on the market leading Red Hat distribution -- run equally well on Viridian. Microsoft is accustomed to seizing control over emerging technologies by bundling them into the operating system, and expects this strategy to prevail in the virtualization front. But winning is not a foregone conclusion in the virtualization software market, and Microsoft should not be out alientating the market leading Linux distribution vendor.

Microsoft should be courting Red Hat, not the other way around.

“For the next few years, it's going to be important for operating systems to be heterogeneous about virtualization,” noted Chris Maresca, founder and senior partner at the Olliance Group, an open source consulting firm. “Is it important for Red Hat to run well on Viridian? Yes, to the extent to which that becomes a market requirement. But the jury is still out as to whether Viridian is going to get a lot of traction vs VMware and Xen. The key question is whether Red Hat really wants to run on top of something controlled by Microsoft. “

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