FAQ: Virtualisation in the SMB

Can VMware retain its lead?

When it comes to virtualisation, VMware is the unquestioned market share leader, but with Microsoft, Citrix and Oracle just a few of the companies barking at its heels, will VMware be able to keep its crown?

Microsoft

Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman predicts Microsoft will hold its own vs. VMware, but not necessarily overtake the top spot in the minds of customers. "It's going to come down to VMware being the major enterprise player and Microsoft being the major midmarket player," says Bittman, who is preparing research on the virtualisation market. "The battleground will be primarily between those two. Everyone else is basically a niche player."

Microsoft's proprietary server virtualisation technology is one of three major architectures on the market, along with VMware's and the open source Xen hypervisor. Microsoft's Virtual Server product never really caught on despite having several years on the market, but Redmond officials are taking aim at VMware again with Hyper-V, which is available in beta as part of Windows Server 2008 and is expected to be generally available within five months.

DiDio thinks Microsoft's partnership with Citrix, owner of XenSource, is an important leg of Microsoft's strategy, even though some analysts expect Microsoft to deemphasise this relationship when its own hypervisor hits the market.

The Microsoft-Citrix partnership involves Citrix virtualising Windows while Microsoft supports Citrix products. Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager can manage both Citrix XenServer and the Citrix Presentation Server. Citrix's desktop virtualisation product will support Hyper-V, and there will be interoperability between virtual servers running on the two companies' hypervisors, according to DiDio.

Microsoft also has partnerships with Novell and Sun, and says the next version of Virtual Machine Manager will manage VMware software. "Microsoft's strategy is basically to surround VMware with all these partnerships," DiDio says.

Microsoft wants to differentiate itself by letting its hypervisor run on a broad range of servers that run Windows, supporting various models of Linux, and simplifying the installation process, says Zane Adam, senior director of virtualisation strategy at Microsoft.

"In talking to customers, we learned one thing: Hypervisors are pretty much going to be anywhere so management becomes the next challenge," Adam says.

But Microsoft's technology is lacking two features wanted by the most demanding customers, according to Jeffrey Gaggin, an enterprise software analyst for Avian Securities. One is live migration, which lets users move an application running on a virtual server from one physical device to another. With Microsoft, this migration takes 5 or 10 seconds while VMware can do it almost instantly, he says. The second missing feature is "hot add," the ability to add memory to a server while it's running, Gaggin says.

"Beyond the hypervisor is the ability to manage all this stuff," he says. "That's where VMware really adds value. That ultimately will be a roadblock for Microsoft."

Still, "when Hyper-V launches, it could definitely have an impact on the VMware profit margin. Do people want to pay more for VMware's offering? I think that's always hard to tell."

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