Microsoft tilts toward virtualization

Quoting from Information Week:

As part of its broader push into the systems-management arena, Microsoft is beelining into the burgeoning virtualization space, and in the process has begun talking (and beginning to act) like a company more fully committed to interoperability with other platforms.

At its Microsoft Management Summit last week, the Redmond, Wash., software giant unveiled several new or updated products, notably the Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 beta and a management pack that provides interfaces between Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) 2005 and Virtual Server 2005 to allow the former to manage the latter. Company officials also disclosed future plans to bake its next-generation virtualization technology — called Hypervisor — directly into the operating system, which is expected to occur around the time Longhorn server OS is released in 2007.

Virtual Server 2005 debuted last October as Microsoft’s entry into the virtualization space, a direction the company says constitutes a key area of investment going forward. The latest service pack enables support for Linux inside Virtual Server 2005, a somewhat ironic development given Microsoft’s past posture of either outright dismissal of the open-source OS or a scathing critique of it. But it also underscores the reality that customers have massively heterogeneous IT environments — not just Windows — and they are crying out for better ways to manage all of the infrastructure.

That reality is also in large part driving demand for virtualization. Virtualization software enables a company to run multiple operating systems, applications, middleware and other software on a single server without forcing those individual elements to scrap over system resources, such as memory, cache and CPU cycles, which degrades performance. The technology also is considered a godsend by a corporate world desperate to cut down on the amount of hardware it is running and to more fully exploit the resources of the servers they do keep churning.

Microsoft’s tilt toward virtualization takes it further down a path of interoperability that in the past it has not willingly traveled. It’s a calculated move, according to Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer, whose keynote speech at the management summit thematically addressed the importance of being able to play nice with others. Systems management is just one piece of the interoperability puzzle at Microsoft, where it is also focused on developing Web services and XML standards. But, according to Ballmer, management interoperability is strategic.

“[Microsoft] grew up focused in on Windows, managing Windows, taking care of Windows,” Ballmer told attendees at the management summit. “Today, I want to mark essentially a step forward where you’ll see that our dedication now is to providing you the kinds of tools that you need to manage heterogeneity in your data center.”

To underscore his point, Ballmer highlighted Microsoft’s blossoming relationship with once-arch-nemesis Sun Microsystems. Since the infamous truce over Java last year, the two IT giants have been working to make their respective technologies interoperate more smoothly. At the management event, Microsoft demonstrated a MOM 2005 console managing a Sun Solaris-based server living in the same rack as Windows servers.

With both Virtual Server 2005 and MOM 2005, Microsoft is dishing out tools that not only automate and manage the Windows environment (as the software always has), but other platforms and applications. And it’s a smart move, some partners say.

Mark Loos, managing consultant for International Network Services (INS) in Santa Clara, Calif., is one such partner who believes Microsoft is moving in the right direction. INS, which has nearly 1,000 employees worldwide specializing in infrastructure services and, recently, application development, is “taking the bull by the horns with Microsoft” and building a strong practice around the management and virtualization tools, he says.

“We’ve already done CiscoWorks, [HP] OpenView, etc., for years,” Loos says. “For Microsoft to begin to head into that area and to adjust their application development to have hooks for management [of other systems] is a great story to tell people with .Net environments.”

Microsoft’s interoperability play isn’t nirvana, it should be noted, especially in the realm of virtualization. Yes, Virtual Server 2005 will enable both Windows and other “guest” operating systems to run simultaneously inside separate virtual machines on one server. But Windows is developed to run optimally in Microsoft’s virtual machines; the others are not. In order for an OS like Linux to perform as well on Virtual Server 2005, Microsoft is looking for some help.

“We want partners to tune the third-party OSs, which is what we are enabling them to do better with [Virtual Server 2005] SP1,” says Eric Berg, director of product management for the Windows management division at Microsoft.

Virtualization leaders such as VMWare, which was acquired by EMC last year, are quick to point out that they don’t play favorites with the performance of the operating systems or other software they run. VMWare takes the agnostic approach and its software is not dependent on any operating system. Instead, it runs directly on the hardware. By comparison, Virtual Server 2005 needs Windows to operate and if Windows goes down, it does as well, according to Raghu Raghuram, senior director of strategy and market development for VMWare.

“You want your virtualization layer to be independent of the operating system so that it runs without prejudice,” Raghuram notes.

He added that Microsoft’s plans to debut in two year’s time Hypervisor virtualization technology to run production applications is, frankly, an architecture that VMWare already has today. For its part, VMWare is innovating with projects that let you take a three-tiered application and all the connectivity between the layers and represent it all on one server, he says.

“We are going for high-level virtualization functions,” he says.

Loos works with both Microsoft and VMWare and agrees that the latter is out of the gate first with much of this technology. But, he says, the guiding light for what INS recommends for virtualization depends in large part on what the customer’s environment already looks like.

“There’s a lot of Windows shops out there,” he says. “We tell customers about the pros and cons and values to be had, and we’ll even do a bake-off if we have to.”

The Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 beta version is now available for download, and among other things features 64-bit compatibility and enhanced performance improvements to the virtual machine technology.