Microsoft Gives Away Virtual Server, Supports Linux
Published: April 11, 2006
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
When you are the wealthiest company in the world (in terms of cash on hand and ongoing quarterly profits), you have some options that other companies just don't have when it comes to dealing with competition. And last week, at the center of the LinuxWorld maelstrom of open source projects and products, Microsoft threw a few surprises at the Linux and virtualization camps when it announced that not only would it be giving away the latest iteration of its Virtual Server 2005 software for free, but that it would also provide technical support for Linux running inside virtual machines inside VS 2005.
Microsoft bought itself into the virtualization software market to respond to competitive pressures from VMware a few years ago, and then tried to pick up the pace to cope with the tremendous IT community support that the open Xen hypervisor has garnered over the past year. While VMware has the largest market share for server virtualization products in the X86 and X64 space and Xen is not really yet a commercial-grade product, the major Linux distributors are embedding Xen into their kernels and XenSource, the company behind the Xen project, is gearing up to deliver the XenEnterprise products that allow companies to manage virtualized Linux and Windows servers from a single console. That's a lot of competitive pressure for Microsoft to cope with, and Microsoft, like these players, would rather be the virtualizer than the virtualized. That is why Microsoft has been trying to beef up the Virtual PC product it acquired three years ago when it bought the virtualization software assets of Connectix, a would-be competitor of VMware's that was just getting ready to ship a server version of its product when Microsoft snapped it up.
That product came to market later than expected, and was considerably less technically interesting than the VMware products, which don't just virtualize servers, but also allow virtual machine partitions to span multiple processors and allow running partitions to be moved from one physical machine to another, among other interesting tricks. After some enhancing throughout 2005, Virtual Server 2005 was finally delivered last September. It was expected to be updated with a Service Pack 1 patch, but in December 2005, Microsoft decided that there was too much new functionality in this updated software to just give it away, so it called it Virtual Server 2005 Release 2 (R2) and charged for it. (Customers with Software Assurance upgrade protection got it for "free," of course.)
At LinuxWorld last week, Microsoft reversed course on all that and said Virtual Server 2005 R2 will now be available as a free download. Last October, Microsoft showed that it was already hip to the whole virtualization scene when it said that companies running Virtual Server 2005 would be able to put up to four Windows instances inside the software for the price of one Windows license; and earlier, when the industry was going back and forth about what to do with dual-core processors and software pricing, Microsoft said that it would treat a dual-core processor as if it were a single-core processor, effectively shifting from processor-based pricing for its key server software to socket-based pricing and an agnostic stance on cores. (I happen to believe that will not last when the industry starts delivering quad-core processors later this year or early next, but that is another story.) To gain support for the data formats used by Virtual Server, Microsoft last summer released the specifications for its Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format, which according to one executive Q&A posted online that Microsoft often uses to make announcements and discuss the implications of them, has been adopted by more than 45 vendors. The VHD license is royalty free, and that number is double that it was six months ago, when the VHD format was opened up a bit. (That does not mean that Virtual Server 2005 is open source--it most certainly is not.) But Microsoft wants VHD to be the format that all virtualization vendors store their virtual machines in, which would give it a certain amount of sway in this brave new virtualization world. (When you get right down to it, a virtual machine is just a giant file on a disk with pretensions of being an operating system, after all.)
Zane Adam, director of product marketing in the Windows Server Division at Microsoft, also said in this announcement that Microsoft would be delivering add-ins for Virtual Sever 2005 R2 that would allow it to support selected Linux implementations as guest operating systems inside Windows servers equipped with Virtual Server. Microsoft will support Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1, 3, and 4 server and workstation versions as well as its Linux 7.3 and 9.0 desktop editions; Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 server variant and the SUSE Linux 9.2, 9.3, and 10.0 desktop editions are also supported.
Microsoft announced last week that Virtual Server 2005 R2 Service Pack 1, which will support the hardware-assisted virtualization features in future Intel and AMD chips, respectively called VT and AVT, has been pushed out into early 2007. It was expected in the second half of 2006.
And before you all get onto the bandwagon for Microsoft slipping with its software, difficulties in getting the VT and AVT hardware and various hypervisor kernel extensions in order with the various Linux players is also making commercial-grade Xen come a bit later to market than people expected, too. Exactly how late remains to be seen, and that will be the topic of much discussion at LinuxWorld last week. The Linux and Windows camps would agree on one thing: This virtualization stuff is difficult technology, and it has to work perfectly or customers will toss their platform vendors out the door.
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