The Microsoft virtualization chance

The Microsoft investment in virtualization industry started in unsuspected times, with the acquisition of the only VMware competitor in 2003: Connectix.

At that time rumours spread the gossip story Microsoft tried to acquire VMware first, but the company management didn’t want to simply become a department like others at Redmond headquarters.

Other anonymous voices whispered instead that Microsoft was evaluating both VMware and Connectix technologies when finally decided for the latter, being faster and easier to integrate with Windows for time to come.

Obviously none of these versions can be confirmed, and possibly both are completely counterfeit.

In any case since that time Microsoft has been almost dormant, providing one minor update per year to Virtual PC (already existing at Connectix time) and Virtual Server (in development at acquisition time), and basically letting VMware becoming a de-facto monopolist in the virtualization industry.

Microsoft also failed to fill voids in the virtualization ecosystem at that time, not producing effective tools for physical to virtual migration and enterprise management, and not facilitating virtualization reconsidering support strategy and licensing models.

In other words Redmond giant has never been perceived nor as a leader neither as an innovator.

Then, in October 2005, Microsoft decides to completely change its approach and announces part of a complex, long-term strategy to conquer a market which became the most dynamic and promising of last years.

And now, even if some aspects of this strategy are still unveiled, everybody look at the company asking if it has a real chance to beat VMware on its own game.

First step: Viridian and Virtual Machine Manager

The very first milestone in Microsoft renewed virtualization strategy is codenamed Viridian: a brand new hypervisor deeply connected with Windows kernel, expected to be available for free and delivered as a service pack, with a tighter integrated in the operating system within few years.

Viridian, officially called Windows Server Virtualization (WSV) at the moment, is designed to compete with VMware datacenter produce, ESX Server, bringing in another level of performances and capabilities.

The company is investing a lot in both these aspects to offer a notable alternative to ESX.

To improve virtual machines efficiency Microsoft is working with Intel and AMD to make out the most from their next generation CPUs, and at the same time arranged a partnership with XenSource, makers of open source hypervisor Xen, to make sure Linux guest OSes will achieve highest performances possible.

On the capabilities side, Microsoft is taking care to grant compatibility with current Virtual Server virtual machines images (.vhd), and it’s directly modifying Windows, allowing its operating system to sustain a hardware modification while running (like adding memory modules, processors or network interface cards for example) in a virtual machine.

Since this last feature depends on Windows itself at the moment is not clear if even VMware will be able to use it, but remains a remarkable selling point for Viridian.

Viridian is currently planned to provide virtualization capabilities to Windows Server editions only, letting out Vista and codename Vienna (its successor), where Microsoft probably plan to deliver another kind of virtualization (see below).

But this aspect of the strategy may change soon and we’ll probably have more details at upcoming WinHEC 2007, while the final product is expected 180 days after Longhorn release (which probably means on early 2008).

Viridian alone won’t be able to seriously compete with powerful VMware Infrastructure solution, so Microsoft also included in its plan an enterprise management tool, System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), which has two delicate talks to achieve: simplify migration to Viridian for current virtualization customers and provide an effective solution for large scale virtual datacenters.

First task will absolved directly managing side by side Viridian and Virtual Server hosts, permitting virtual to virtual (V2V) migrations from them and from other virtualization platforms to Viridian.
Second task will be absolved introducing semi-automatic provisioning tools as well as per-groups resources reservation capabilities.

On Virtual Machine Manager, which is already in beta testing since August 2006 and is expected to be officially released before Viridian, depends a large part of Microsoft virtualization strategy for enterprise segment.

It’s almost sure the first product release will not able to compete with VMware VirtualCenter and recently released Lab Manager, but may be enough to satisfy most needs.

Anyway to assure so many efforts are really successful Microsoft had to count on its endless swarm of partners, which are involving through a concept originally developed by its competitor VMware: the virtual appliance.

In November 2006 Microsoft launches the VHD Test Drive Program, which allows potential customers to download pre-build virtual machines loading pre-installed Windows, SQL Server, Exchange Server and other popular company products.

This move, which at first sight just seems a poor attempt to clone the recently announced VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace (VAM), aims at different purpose: when the program will be extended to tents of ISVs as announced, customers interested in their pre-configured products, even if only for evaluation purposes, will be induced to use Microsoft virtualization platform massively. At that point will be easier to enter VMware customers’ domains and have the chance of a comparison between technologies.

Even if at today it’s already possible convert a Virtual Server virtual machine to use it on VMware products, it’s highly unlikely this will happen in evaluation scenarios.
Microsoft will count on Viridian ubiquity and virtual appliances potentials to let customers know there is new player on market.

Second step: SoftGrid

Microsoft will not stop providing a brand new server virtualization platform.

The new strategy is looking far ahead, when the way we think computing may change once again thanks to application virtualization technologies.

Still on early stages today, within few years there is a chance application virtualization will coexist with server virtualization, serving self-contained applications on demand, without the need of installation, and radically transforming the client side of IT infrastructures succeeding where thin computing failed so far.

Betting on this scenario (and preparing to front an inevitable competition with its long time partner Citrix) in July 2006 Microsoft acquired Softricity, one of the most prominent vendor in the space thanks to its streaming capability.

Microsoft is currently offering the original product, called SoftGrid, almost unmodified and without any serious marketing effort, but the company is expected to integrate it in System Center Configuration Manager (formerly System Management Server or SMS) first and directly in Windows sometimes later.

With SoftGrid technology Microsoft has a chance to complement the Viridian virtualization offering, reaching those customers VMware cannot reach at the moment.

Third step: OS partitioning

As I said not all parts of the Microsoft strategy are unveiled. The vaguest part of it involves adoption of another virtualization approach, called OS partitioning (or OS virtualization).

In today’s market this approach is considered a less flexible alternative to server virtualization (or hardware virtualization) due to inability to host different operating systems on the same hardware, even if it can better fit some scenarios where multiple identical environments must be managed in similar way, like web hosting.

Microsoft announced it will enter this space too, but without providing any roadmap and letting understand this will be the farthest milestone to reach.

At first sight it’s not clear why Microsoft, investing so much in hardware virtualization, may be interested in OS virtualization too, but carefully looking at possibilities I recognize a future when the company will be able to offer abstraction at three levels, hardware, operating system and application, letting customers decide how much granularity they need in tomorrow’s highly powerful datacenters.

A road leading to unmatched flexibility and endless configurations, where grid computing seems nearer.

Conquering the industry through SMBs

Despite all these technologies, considering timeframes and current virtualization market position, it’s not hard looking at Microsoft with scepticism about its chances to take some real shares or even control this industry in a reasonable time: when the Windows hypervisor will be ready who knows how further VMware will be in development and popularity?

Why customers should decide to go with Microsoft when it’s already known the first release of Viridian will not be able to sustain a comparison with VMware technology?

In my opinion Microsoft chance to win lies in the SMB segment, which fatally is where VMware is weaker at the moment.

Possibly huge funds and impressive marketing machine are not enough for Microsoft to move biggest customers away from ESX Server in short times: VMware enterprise features cannot be matched at the moment and I can safely say products are shaped around Fortune 500 needs.

But there is a huge base of potential customers which are working with VMware products because they are free, which don’t need or can’t budget a SAN, which can’t train an administrator to become a networking/system/storage expert or can’t budget hiring one.

And there is an even greater amount of potential customers which are not adopting virtualization yet, because they don’t know it, because it’s not reliable enough, or just because they are waiting to see what Microsoft will do.

These customers represent worldwide small and medium business.

This market segment represents a unique opportunity for Microsoft to take over VMware.

Placing Viridian in every single new Windows Server copy the Redmond giant is telling these customers they have a product as free as competing one, but with an advantage: it’s already there. Nothing to search, download, install or learn as new technology.

The hypervisor will be part of the OS as a checked option in the installation process, as an integrated component to administer with Management Console like IIS or Active Directory, as a standard host to backup with usual product, as just a new chapter in the administration guide or the official classroom courseware.

An advantage that makes the difference in a world where there is no budget for training, no time for testing compatibility, no culture for lab facilities.
Here integration Microsoft can provide between its products can drive adoption more than any technical enhancement.

Free, integrated and already there.

To enforce these concepts Microsoft may use a product in particular. A product which had mixed fortune so far: Windows Small Business Server (SBS).

The most recurrent critique to SBS in history is related to its security: it’s impossible to provide an acceptable level of trust on a host where directory services, DNS services, mail services, database services, internet and intranet web sites are installed together (inclusion of ISA Server and WSUS doesn’t help much since they cannot address isolation of publicly accessed servers).

Now imagine Microsoft to release next version of SBS based on Viridian, where every mentioned product is securely contained in a virtual machine, virtual networking is pre-configured to run publicly accessed servers in a screened subnet, and every Windows instance points to the ISA Server virtual machine as its enterprise firewall.

Isn’t this a server farm in a box?

Obviously such configuration could be arranged even today, with any VMware product or even with Microsoft Virtual Server itself.

But requires hours, skills for the virtualization infrastructures, and has no licensing bundle benefits.

Who wouldn’t a pre-configured server farm in a box at a bundle price?

In such scenario would be easy for Microsoft to conquer the SMB market and hard for VMware to sustain the slogan “our virtualization platform is better”.

This article originally appeared on SearchServerVirtualization.