Microsoft vs. VMware: What's the next move?

With their hypervisors finally slugging it out in the marketplace, Microsoft and VMware will now advance their battle for virtual world dominance.

Between Microsoft's minimal pricing strategy with its Hyper-V hypervisor and VMware's recent decision to make its own ESX hypervisor free, such technology is now affordable to IT shops of all sizes.

This does not mean that hypervisors are now a commodity. For one thing, VMware's ESX, Microsoft's Hyper-V and Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenSource hypervisors are not easily swappable at this point, and some say they believe the underpinning architecture of certain hypervisors are superior to others. But lines are being drawn in anticipation of hypervisors losing their competitive advantages.

VMware is burnishing its image by positioning itself as more than just a server virtualization specialist: It has introduced several new management tools, bought application virtualization software company ThinApps and made its ESXi 3.5 hypervisor free.

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And freshly minted CEO Paul Maritz – who replaced longtime founder Diane Greene earlier this month -- made it clear on the company's earnings call last week that VMware plans to be a force in cloud computing, desktop virtualization and storage.

Microsoft has also made a few acquisitions, such as Kidaro and SoftGrid. In addition, the company introduced a management suite for virtual and physical environments, released Hyper-V as part of Windows Server 2008 and CEO Steve Ballmer is touting cloud computing as the future. Later this year there will also be a standalone hypervisor to sell for $28 a pop.

The vendors' goals appear to be aligning, but who can best deliver on these goals and which company will get more customer nods is still a big question.

Customer perception

Whatever company has the best management features that make administraion
of the hypervisor 
and virtual machines the easiest will win.

Glenda Canfield,
virtualization practice manager consultantComputerTech
VMware has a head start of nearly a decade with a large installed base of satisfied customers. "The number one critical decision driver for enterprises today is a hypervisor that has proof points [and] reference points, versus one that is brand new and unproven," said Tom Bittman, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

The ESX hypervisor has a strong position in large enterprises where many customers would balk at the idea of swapping out their investment in VMware for Microsoft. On the other hand, smaller enterprises are lightly penetrated and will be more likely go with Microsoft, he said.

Many customers rely on partners, such as integrators and consulting companies, to help them evaluate, buy and install products as well. Microsoft has a long history with partners in every corner of the world who influence what their customers buy. VMware is new to the channel and has yet to earn its trust, said David Payne, CTO at Xcedex LLC, a Plymouth, Minn.-based integrator that specializes in virtualization software.

"I have been a VMware partner for five years and am very much in the game with them, but it was eye opening to see [at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference earlier this month] just how serious Microsoft is about virtualization and making us as partners successful with their products," Payne said.

Customers are skeptical about initial releases, and Hyper-V is a 1.0 release. But IT shops are worried about their budgets and they know Hyper-V is easy on the wallet. "In the market now there is so much emotion …. Are we in a recession? Are we not?" Payne said. "People are overreacting so they are looking for something they perceive to be cheap, and that is going to help Microsoft win [deals]."

Virtual and physical management

Ask a market expert or the IT folks building virtual environments about which vendor will prevail and they will say the one with the best management tools.

"Whatever company has the best management features that make administration of the hypervisor and virtual machines the easiest will win," said Glenda Canfield, virtualization practice manager, principal consultant with ComputerTech in Richardson, Texas.

Storage will also play a big role in how customers weigh the benefits of one product over another. With EMC as its parent company, VMware has an edge. There has been some buzz that Citrix could buy a storage technology or form an alliance with a storage OEM, she said. Since virtualization is largely about the ability to switch out resources on the fly, storage is needed for high availability as well as for virtual machine stores. "That's where a lot of money will be made," Canfield said.

Some experts argue that Microsoft has the edge because of its System Center management product suite. This now includes the Virtual Machine Manager [VMM], which can manage both physical and virtual machines. VMM 2008 will support not just Hyper-V, but VMware's ESX as well.

"Microsoft isn't just going after the virtual environment like VMware is," Payne said. "Microsoft is going after the entire data center -- physical, virtual, server, desktop and applications. "VMware has a lot of neat products that solve some interesting problems like lab automation and new disaster recovery and high-availability products. But it's not as comprehensive as Microsoft's."

And Gartner's Bittman said that the race to determine which vendor has better management capabilities is no contest today. He said Microsoft is two to three years behind VMware. "VMware lets you create a disaster recovery environment, automatically move virtual machines around and it has a distributed resource scheduler. You can't do those things with Microsoft," he said.

VMware should move outside the virtual world to manage physical and software environments as well. Bittman said he expects VMware to make up that deficit with future acquisitions.

Hypervisor architecture

Technology from both VMware and Microsoft has pros and cons. ESX hypervisor has separated itself from the need for an OS giving ESXi a footprint of 32 MB. Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor runs side by side with a copy of Windows running all the drivers and is about 1.5 GB in size.

"That's a huge potential for a single point of failure …that if Hyper-V goes down, all of the copies of VMs could go down and it has to be rebooted if it goes down or rebooted to patch," Bittman said.

Microsoft's long-standing partnership with Citrix Systems could give Microsoft an edge in time. The two vendors are working on a VHD with a unified, standard file structure that would allow IT to migrate virtual machines back and forth between Citrix and Microsoft hypervisors, while VMware's file structure is proprietary, said ComputerTech's Canfield.

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