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Microsoft readies desktop virtualization software

Microsoft is preparing to release virtualization software that will let administrators upgrade desktops without losing access to legacy applications. A server version of product isn't far behind.

IT administrators who are planning to upgrade their desktops and yet keep some of their legacy applications might find some use for one of two virtualization products coming from Microsoft.

One of the primary uses of Microsoft's Virtual PC 2004, just released to manufacturing, is for IT administrators to experience the productivity of a new operating system while continuing to use old applications, said Carla Huffman, product manager for the Virtual PC.

Virtualization software, in general, lets customers run multiple instances of an operating system on a given piece of hardware. The desktop software focuses on optimizing the end-user interface, Huffman said.

The product targets customers who need access to different operating systems on the desktop. Such customers might include help desk professionals, developers or people who demonstrate software. There are also many users who need to run a proprietary legacy application that may not work on a newer version of an operating system.

Experts say Microsoft trails VMWare Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif. company, in the market for PC and server virtualization technology. This week, VMWare forged ahead with its release of VirtualCenter, software that lets IT administrators manage a complete computing infrastructure.

Brad Day, an analyst at Forrester Research, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., said that 60% to 75% of his clients are using some form of virtual machine technology, not just on Windows, but on Unix systems as well.

"There are enough best practices to show a tremendous lowering of cost of life cycle ownership," Day said. "It's not just in getting applications on fewer operating systems and then on fewer high-performance processors, but also tremendous cost savings in-house in Windows consolidation."

Indeed, this class of software is growing in popularity because IT executives see it as a way to get more for less. If the software remains stable and scalable, customers think it will be a slam-dunk for the enterprise.

"I think the virtualization of machines is the way that things are going to go in the future, especially if Microsoft and VMWare can make the products as reliable as they can be," said Alan Thomas, senior technical consultant at National Gypsum, a building materials manufacturing company based in Charlotte, N.C.

Huffman said that Virtual PC 2004 will be available by the end of the year. It will sell for $129 retail, down from the previous price of $229 when the technology was the property of another vendor.

Virtual PC 2004, along with Virtual Server, was acquired earlier this year from Connectix Corp., a San Mateo, Calif., company. Virtual Server, which is similar to Virtual PC 2004 but has better performance, scalability and remote management features, is expected to ship sometime in the first half of 2004.

Huffman said that, since Microsoft acquired the technology, it has focused development efforts on improving product security. Virtual PC 2004 was audited, and the software was subsequently rebuilt, she said. Some changes include assurances that there is nothing a user can do that will affect the system's operating system. There is also support for four network cards and more memory.


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