Virtual competition makes for real opportunities

Virtualisation gives IT managers power and flexibility, in more ways than one

If you don't have products, talk about vision and strategy. While the world waits for Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V, Microsoft has kept the pot boiling by talking up its commitment to virtualisation. It's familiar talk.

Microsoft, like VMware, HP, IBM and just about every other large IT company with designs on your servers, says it is keen on the dynamic enterprise. The future is full of promise — of applications, desktops, servers and storage, configured and deployed at the touch of a button onto highly tuned, highly efficient, highly secure hardware. For those planning enterprise IT, this commitment to flexibility is welcome.

Even more so is the commitment Microsoft has to tackling VMware head-on: this will be a competitive marketplace, and one where every sale is worth far more to the vendor than the pure cash value. Virtualisation is infrastructure that, once chosen, is rarely changed, and everyone in the market will be extremely keen to get you on board.

That gives buyers great power. Decide now exactly what you want from your ideal virtualised system — now and as far into the future as you can see. If you want to rip it out and start again, will the vendors give you the tools to do so? How about a wholesale change in operating system? And how about generous breaks for volume licences, far into the future?

But don't sign up too soon. While vision and strategy are fine things to talk about, it's the product, not the promise, that matters. For example, Microsoft has bought Calista, graphics technology specialists, to improve virtualised multimedia performance — but that's a long way from delivering a virtual desktop that can play video or display 3D graphics as well as the real thing. Microsoft is not alone in buying companies and losing what made them valuable — and, even if that doesn't happen, be sure that VMware will have something interesting to show in response.

Play the long game. Get the vendors talking, so you can tell them what you want. Play them off against each other. Once you're sure that promises are turning into products and strategy into software, then drive the price down and the value up.

It's not often that the market for fundamental enterprise IT is wide open. Make the most of it.