Microsoft fights fire with fire in server virtualization market

Redmond about-faces, supports Linux under Virtual Server, waits for customers to come knocking

Virtualization-related announcements were flying at this year's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston. Given a flurry of new products and initiatives from the likes of Virtual Iron, VMware, and XenSource, I guess it should have come as no surprise that Microsoft would throw its hat into the ring. What is surprising, however, is just how much of an about-face Microsoft seems to have made.

When Microsoft acquired its virtual machine technology from Connectix in 2003, Virtual PC customers were handed just one significant, albeit not unexpected, change: So long, Linux. The rebranded Virtual Server was strictly a solution for running virtualized Windows operating systems, Redmond declared. Whereas Connectix had actually sold copies of its software bundled with Red Hat Linux, Microsoft put an end to that, and henceforth Linux was officially unsupported.

That is, until last week. Now the official story is that Microsoft will not only support Linux installations under Virtual Server, but it will make the virtualization software available as a free download as well. What gives?

Clearly this is all about spin control. Microsoft is reacting to the realities of a market that's changed rapidly in recent months. Unlike the browser wars, where bundling Internet Explorer with Windows forced Netscape to give up on the idea of selling a Web browser, Microsoft isn't the first company to start giving away virtualization software. VMware made its own Server product a free download months ago.

If you look at the bigger picture, both VMware's and Microsoft's moves were inevitable. Virtualization support built into the latest generation of processors from AMD and Intel make obsolete much of the difficult R&D that went into Connectix's and VMware's software. These new chips make the ability to run virtual machines almost commonplace, significantly lowering the barrier to entry for upstart competitors such as XenSource and its open source Xen hypervisor. In effect, the chipmakers have dropped the bottom out of the market for virtualization software.

That's not to say that there's no money to be made. The competition to provide top-notch tools and management software for virtualized environments is only just heating up. VMware is in the lead right now, with its superior ESX Server product, but I have no doubt that numerous challengers will soon be nipping at its heels.

Microsoft is smart enough to realize all this. No point in trying to sell technology that anyone can get for free. But it has also realized something else. The myriad virtualization options on the market right now have one thing in common: Linux. Customers can't ignore that fact, and neither can Microsoft if it still thinks it can keep up with the Joneses in this market. So it's back to supporting Linux virtual machines with Virtual Server.

There's an element of damning with faint praise here, though. Of course, Microsoft seems to be saying, It's fine to run Linux as a guest OS as long as your virtualization software is Virtual Server running on Windows Server 2003.

But I wonder how many customers will share that point of view. It seems to me that Windows servers have far more security and stability problems than your typical Linux server. If you must run a mixed-OS environment, doesn't it make more sense to run Windows as a guest OS on a virtualized Linux server?

After all, if Linux is good enough to get the nod from Microsoft, then it must be good enough for customers to take seriously -- right?

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