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Can Microsoft and VMware virtualization coexist in the enterprise?

While both vendors work to market the benefits of one platform over the other, many organizations find themselves choosing the best of both worlds.

In the great battle for virtualization mindshare, Microsoft and VMware have been busy marketing their products every which way to convince us to choose one platform over the other. But are these choices really binary? Is there only one right solution for your business?

If you look at most data centers today, the answer is clear -- you bring in “best of breed” to help deliver the right kinds of solutions. There are times to standardize on a single vendor, but there are other scenarios that call for more than one approach.

The point of all this marketing is to lock you into a single solution so that add-ons like management applications are an easy sell. VMware has a multitude of additional features and additions available; from full private cloud infrastructures to integrated software Cisco routers, you can get almost anything for VMware, but the hypervisor -- the piece that runs all those virtual machines on a single piece of hardware -- remains free.

The reason for this is simple. Like many technology markets before, the hypervisor has become commoditized to the point that no vendor can make money selling a hypervisor alone when there are several options available from the likes of Microsoft or even the open source Xen platform.

So what is the benefit to vendor lock-in? If you listen to the marketing, it provides a single management platform and the ability to be fully compatible with a single scripting language, command structure, virtual hard drive format and so on. It’s true that a vendor-specific solution only works on that vendor’s platforms, but that could be the case in many areas. Yet oftentimes, we still source from multiple vendors.

When two is better than one
Let’s look at the concept of having two distinct virtualization vendors in your organization. What is the benefit? Well there can be several pluses, the first of which involves taking advantage of existing investments in VMware. Even though you may be looking at Hyper-V as an alternative, you likely already have several servers hosting production on virtual machines. We all cut our teeth on VMware (if only in the lab), so even if you want to switch to a different platform, moving perfectly stable VMs for the sake of shutting down a VMware host will often lack sufficient justification.

There are also costs to consider. Microsoft Hyper-V is easily integrated with Windows Server, is cost-included and can be downloaded as a free standalone version. You can make the argument that VMware ESXi is free as well, but that’s before you add the licensing for any type of vCenter management.  You may need a low-cost option to bring up a test-bed of servers  that won’t require thousands of dollars to add it to your existing VMware infrastructure.

There is also the need to conform to vendor software requirements. For example, you may want to deploy to Hyper-V in order to use certain products in a particular virtual environment, as is the case for many Microsoft server products like Exchange and SQL Server. In other instances, you might look to take advantage of software appliances that are typically bundled as VMware virtual machines, ready to power on.

Tackling two virtual birds with one stone
Deploying separate virtualization platforms is a smart approach for many organizations, but what about a unified approach to management? VMware certainly isn’t backing down from a single-vendor mentality, but Microsoft’s System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) can actually manage VMware virtual machines along with XenServer and Hyper-V parent and child partitions. That’s a plus, especially if you want a standardized interface or you like the System Center product suite as a standard for management.

That’s not to say you won’t give something up by utilizing SCVMM over VMware vCenter. First, vCenter licensing is still required since VMware cannot be managed without it. Additionally, SCVMM doesn’t support the latest hooks into VMware’s environment for VMware 4.1 and you may be missing some information and advanced features that would be readily available in the native vCenter client.

As with everything in IT, a single systems management product is not an all-encompassing solution, nor should it be. If you want to have two or three separate platforms in production, you need to get the tools that support them and take advantage of third-party products to manage some aspects of your mixed environment. Monitoring and alarming could be one example of this kind of hybrid approach.

Hyper-V and VMware as best of breed
When it comes to the future of your virtual environment, you can bet that the back-and-forth between VMware and Microsoft will continue as both vendors compete  for customers. This is actually good news, since decisions based on OS support and cost effectiveness are much easier to make when you have more than one option.

Looking ahead to the future, having both VMware vCloud and Windows Azure on the table will give you options down the road when considering private and hybrid clouds. In reality, supporting both platforms is not unlike having Windows and Linux or two different vendors for network routers. This is a common scenario in your data center, so don’t let the virtualization vendors scare you into thinking you need to make a choice one way or the other.

You can follow on Twitter @WindowsTT.

Eric Beehler has been working in the IT industry since the mid-90's, and has been playing with computer technology well before that. He currently provides consulting and training through his co-ownership in Consortio Services, LLC.

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