Microsoft leaps into virtualization: free software, new acquisition, XenSource partnerships

After offering Virtual PC 2004 software as a free download, Microsoft kicked off the week with two more virtualization moves: On Monday, the Redmond software maker completed its acquisition of Softricity, a provider of app virtualization and streaming technologies; on Tuesday, the company disclosed plans to begin working with open-source virtualization vendor XenSource.

Microsoft's Virtual PC is a client/desktop virtualization product designed to allow users to run multiple operating systems on a host PC. Its requirements show that it's primarily aimed at Microsoft developers—it runs on Windows 2000 Professional SP4, Windows XP Professional or later, and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or later. 

In a joint announcement, XenSource and Microsoft said that they will begin cooperating on the development of technology to provide interoperability between Xen-enabled Linux and the new Windows hypervisor technology-based Windows Server virtualization. XenSource is a commercial vendor that offers an enterprise-grade virtualization solution based on the Xen open-source hypervisor. Unlike a hosted virtualization solution, a hypervisor doesn't require an OS; it runs on "bare metal."

The resulting technology, the companies said, will allow the next version of Windows Server ("Longhorn") to provide a flexible and powerful virtualization solution across their hardware infrastructure and OS environments for cost-saving consolidation of Windows, Linux and Xen-enabled Linux distributions.

Not long ago Microsoft viewed Xen as a threat, Gartner analyst Tom Bittman told AppTrends in an earlier interview. Particularly worrying were XenSource's plans to take advantage of new virtualization features built into AMD and Intel server processors— features that would allow Xen to run Windows without modification. "That's what lit a fire under Microsoft to get focused on a hypervisor," Bittman said. "They saw Xen coming, and the idea of open-source hypervisor was seen as being a much bigger threat than VMware. A commercial vendor they understand, but Xen is this open-source thing that could cause some serious disintermediation."

Unearthed from the mainframe days by market leader VMware, virtualization has quickly evolved from a neat trick for running extra operating systems to a must-have mainstream tool for developers who need to test their applications on a wide variety of OSes.

Microsoft isn't the only company backing Xen. On the same day Microsoft announced its XenSource agreement, Novell officially released the SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 operating system, which includes Xen-based virtualization technology. And IBM declared that it would support that OS on its hardware and its middleware. IBM will support the Xen technology as part of its Virtualization Engine software on BladeCenter blade servers, as well as the servers based on x86 chips from Intel and AMD.

And it's not the only vendor handing out freebies. In a kind of pre-emptive strike, VMware announce on Saturday that it would be offering its VMware Server at no charge. The product has just emerged from a five-month beta program that produced more than 700,000 downloads. VMware, which is a subsidiary of EMC, also gives away its VMware player, which is oriented to third parties who want to give away demo/trial versions of their software.

Microsoft's moves make sense to analyst Neil Macehiter, but he doesn't expect them to have much of an impact on the market leader.

"VMware Server is designed to reduced the barriers to initial adoption," Macehiter says, "particularly at the low end, and then provide a migration path for customers and an upsell path for VMware to sell its management tools, backup/recovery tools, etc. Microsoft cannot really attack the market in the same way, because it doesn't have the equivalent offerings to upsell to."

The ultimate result of this increasingly dynamic competition in the virtualization market is likely to be a hastening of commoditization, Bittman said, which will shift the focus to management solutions. Products like Microsoft's upcoming "Carmine" Virtual Server Manager, for example, will compete directly with VMware's VirtualCenter. Microsoft has not said when it will release Carmine.

Macehiter agrees: "In the long term, I see VMware continuing to lead Microsoft on virtualized infrastructure innovation," he adds, "with lower elements of the stack—the core virtualization engine—becoming a commodity. VMware will remain the premium brand, addressing sophisticated requirements, with Microsoft being the utility brand of primary interest to customers with a significant Microsoft environment, or who do not have sophisticated requirements."

Microsoft's Virtual PC 2004 is now available now at the Microsoft Download Center.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].