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Microsoft: Can it stand up to the challenge of virtualization?

The delay of Microsoft's Virtual Server to the Windows Server 2008 product cycle raises questions about the server virtualization market and increasingly complicated competition amongst vendors.

Once again Microsoft has announced that the debut of Microsoft Virtual Server will be delayed for another product cycle to appear in Windows Server '08. They promise that within two years server virtualization technology will be accessible to and used by users across the full spectrum of the IT marketplace. What's going on?

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Microsoft is far from being alone among software vendors to have a history of slipping the delivery dates of major products and product enhancements. It isn't only in retrospect that the decision to build rather than buy hypervisor technology was probably not the best one Microsoft could have made if they wanted to meet their now clearly optimistic delivery schedules.

Microsoft's big 'claim to fame' has been its consistent ability to make complex technology easily accessible and useable to mass consumers; not in fundamental or ground-breaking technological innovation or advancement. They have made their billions by recognizing the fundamental and powerful utility of a technological tool. They then create a way to allow those lacking the time or interest to become technology experts to put that tool to effective use. Their path to success lay in compromising to achieve effective usability, not engineering perfection.

It should come as no surprise that Microsoft's attempt to tackle the challenge of making the benefits and power of a truly virtualized infrastructure transparently accessible to the masses is taking and will take longer than expected; even as it hired talent from every conceivable source. However, it isn't only the experience of developing and delivering a very sophisticated technology that is slowing their delivery.

Microsoft is experiencing the consequences of a hyper-dynamic computer development environment where old absolutes and fixed reference points for development have lost their relevance. Ptak, Noel & Associates LLC first discussed aspects of this trend in a report targeted at end-user clients several years ago. The problem goes beyond the traditional challenge of identifying 'wants' versus 'needs' that continue to bedevil solutions requirement planners.

It goes beyond the traditional challenge of an evolving end-user operational problem set that expands even as solutions to existing problems are found. The problem lies in the continuing evolution of the IT operations environment as it becomes increasingly dynamic in response to end-user demands.

Today's challenge is the pace at which the marketplace is gaining understanding of what virtualization is and can do. The level of competition is increasing with all the associated benefits to users that come with it. Established players such as HP and IBM have launched new marketing and education programs. There are new entrants into the market in response to pressures for increased services and lower prices. All of this puts increasing pressure on Microsoft to deliver what they have traditionally done and promised.

Microsoft's success has been in making existing technical solutions more accessible and useable by a wider audience. They traditionally have done this in a process of radical simplification in the user interface – they used standards, templates and pre-defined scenarios for use to accomplish this. Their gamble with virtualization was to combine their traditional approach with the development of a highly sophisticated base technology.

In the interim, Microsoft's very presence in the market, along with the products they have delivered so far, has impacted and changed the market they are trying to serve. Their announcements and involvement has significantly expanded market awareness and acceptance of a technology that IBM introduced (as logical and software partitioning) to the computing elite ages ago.

VMware earned global-leadership, share-of-mind recognition with software solutions extending beyond the server to cross technology infrastructures with industry-standard software with increased platform accessibility. Microsoft will increase the utility and accessibility even further when it delivers.

In their own words, "Microsoft's strategy is to enable customers to take advantage of their existing platform investments, utilize their existing support skills and infrastructure, and to reduce costs associated with implementing virtualized environments." We'll see how well they will deliver on that promise. We believe they can do it, the question is when.

Seen or heard of an interesting product? Have comment or question about this column? Contact me.


Richard Ptak is an analyst with Ptak, Noel & Associates. He has over 30 years experience in systems product management.

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