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Server virtualization market rapidly commoditizing

The server virtualization market is rapidly commoditizing. Companies are jockeying for a spot in this young market before the Longhorn hypervisor appears.

Suppliers of server virtualization software are racing the clock as they seal their loyalties with IT shops and partners in the flicker of time before Microsoft can add this capability to Longhorn Server.

In the rush, the market is rapidly commoditizing. There are major competitive strikes this week from Microsoft; VMware Inc., the virtualization market leader and open source player; XenSource; and Virtual Iron Software Inc., a hot startup.

This week, Microsoft will remove the price tag from Virtual Server 2005 R2. This echoes a move made by rival VMware in February when VMware stopped charging for its low-end product, GSX Server. GSX's successor -- VMware Server -- will be free when it ships this summer.

Microsoft also will make available support for Linux guest OSes running on Virtual Server 2005 R2, including nine variants of Linux, all from Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc.

These moves are a prelude to building virtualization capability into Longhorn Server. While Microsoft has said virtualization won't be built into in the initial version of the software, due out sometime in 2007, they are expected to be released as an add-on or in Longhorn Server R2 some time after that.

Within three years, Tom Bittman, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn., predicts that customers will see the hypervisor concept move from being an expensive product to a commodity. Customers instead will pay for virtualization management software.

The lag time is giving competitors a small window to lock in relationships. Gartner predicts that within three years roughly 40% to 50% of servers will actually be running virtual machines. "You would think that with Microsoft coming, that the small vendors would collapse," Bittman said. "But Microsoft is really, really late."

Consequently, Microsoft's decision to stop charging for Virtual Server 2005 R2 came as no surprise. "When VMware decided to give away GSX, it freed Microsoft to give away Virtual Server," Bittman said. "There was the [concern about antitrust restrictions], but now that's removed."

The challengers make moves

VMware now needs to capitalize on Microsoft's tardiness. The EMC Corp. subsidiary, which is estimated to have about 95% of the VM market, will open up its virtual machine disk format specification to all developers and vendors without royalty or license restrictions. Last August, VMware said it would open up the source code to the hypervisor of its more high-powered ESX Server to key partners.

Dan Chu, senior director of developer and ISV products at VMware, explained it this way: The core virtual machine format and specification that partners can now access defines everything -- from how the application operating system (and the container that is called the virtual machine) is encapsulated, all the way to how everything is then put onto a data file system or on local or network storage.

These specifications are crucial to knowing how virtual environments are managed, cached or backed up. VMware said that vendors, such as Altiris Inc., BMC Software Inc., IBM, PlateSpin Ltd., Symantec Corp. and others, use the disk format specification to develop applications for virtual environments.

VMware's action makes VMware technology more integral to complementary products. Many enterprises already run VMware, but they need better ways to provision the software and manage the virtual environment.

"If VMware can provide hooks for extending its functionality to other virtualization solutions, as well as configuration and management platforms, it will be able to take the next step in 'growing up' into an enterprise solution," adds Bob Gill, chief research officer at TheInfoPro Inc., a New York research firm. "It may also be a preemptive move toward any similar efforts by Microsoft to give its technology away for free in an attempt to break VMware's grip on users and developers."

And it's not just a two-way battle. This week, startup Virtual Iron will release version 3.0 of its virtualization software, which adds the open source Xen hypervisor. Virtual Iron will now support both 32-bit and 64-bit Linux and Windows without modification.

And XenSource said it has scrapped its XenOptomizer, a product it released in December and, instead, will release a new one that can run Windows virtual machines. The company, which was founded and is run by the development team of the open source hypervisor Xen, is now testing XenEnterprise, which will exploit hardware advances coming from Intel Corp. and AMD Inc.

Company executives said beta testers wanted a product that could work with all operating systems, including Windows.

Everybody's doing it -- almost

There is no question that X86 server virtualization is hot. But not every IT shop is clamoring for server virtualization. "Unless it's for testing and development, I can't see it fitting into the mix just yet," said Scott Saunders, director of systems technology at Paxson Communications Corp., in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"People are seeing it as a simple way to consolidate, but we are consolidating through blade servers," he said. "I'm sure there is a case for it, but it's still a single point of failure. If you only have one server and someone dumps coffee on it you're out until you bring up another server."

Still, more than a third of IT managers polled in a February survey said they were currently deploying between one and 10 virtual servers within their infrastructure; another 10% said 10 to 50 virtual servers.

Gartner estimates that between 80% and 90% of its customers are using some kind of server virtualization software. And, last year about 5% of X86 servers installed were virtual machines. Gartner saw a slowdown on the X86 market last year that equaled the number of virtual machines sold.

"Look at it this way," Gartner's Bittman said. "The amount the server market slowed down compared with the year before was equal to the number of VMs sold. This is no small trend. It's huge."

Jan Stafford, Jack Loftus and Matt Stansberry contributed to this story.

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