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Microsoft defines virtualization strategy

Microsoft has announced beta release plans for its hypervisor and Virtual Machine Manager, two major components of the company's virtualization strategy. Some experts say the success of the new additions could be critical to Microsoft's future in the virtualization market.

Microsoft fleshed out its server virtualization strategy today in hopes of shucking off its reputation as a latecomer when it comes to this emerging technology.

But the company's roadmap doesn't really hasten the delivery of virtualization technology, and it doesn't hasten the previously announced delivery date. Microsoft said it will have a beta release of its hypervisor by the end of 2006 and will make it available within six months of the Windows Server Longhorn release to manufacturing.

The technology will require 64-bit hardware from Intel Corp. or AMD Inc. Microsoft executives said the software will be delivered as a free download and not necessarily as an R2 or a service pack.

"This is no small add-on. It's major and will be heavily tested," said Tom Bittman, research fellow at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"The hypervisor -- whether it's in the base release or it comes later -- will be the most significant piece of code in that release," Bittman added. "We can talk about Indigo and about [Network Access Protection] but this will have a far bigger impact on the industry and the thing that will create the best business case for users who want to upgrade."

Bittman said he thinks IT shops will delay their Vista and Longhorn upgrades while they wait for the first delivery of the hypervisor, and then they will wait some more for the technology to be proven. "I believe this will shift everything out another six months," he said.

The hypervisor is indeed important, Bittman said, but Microsoft's success or failure in virtualization will likely be based on the quality of its System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

Microsoft also announced it will release a beta of its Virtual Machine Manager within the next 90 days. The software is scheduled to come out in the second half of 2007.

"If they do a poor job with [Virtual Machine Manager] then VMware will continue to make great strides in the Microsoft world and in the data center," Bittman said.

As part of its virtualization strategy, Microsoft also said it intends to acquire Softricity Inc., a Boston-based manufacturer of application virtualization software.

Many IT shops that are also big Microsoft customers are already heavily invested in VMware technology. Some IT managers have said they are excited about the changes that virtualization technology is bringing to their server environments.

"We created a server sprawl problem in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now we will see the condensing of these environments," said Matt Hansberger, director of Wintel Technology at Pacific Life Insurance Co. in Newport Beach, Calif.

Hansberger uses VMware's ESX Server. He said whether or not he decides to switch to Microsoft's server virtualization tools will depend on cost. "I'll do an analysis," he said. "If it's a small cost reduction, no, and if it's a big one, yes."

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