Microsoft’s virtualization strategy focuses on management application

A non-sequitur commercial campaign starring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld isn’t the only thing Microsoft is launching these days – the Redmond-based software giant is also unleashing a trifecta of virtualization software tools over the next month.

Vince Jordan of WSIB discusses the virtues of virtualization.

The launch of three software tools is aimed at helping companies virtualize servers and applications with a simpler management flow available through a one-stop dashboard system. A follow-up to the Windows Server 2008 launch last February, the three products will be available for customers to download for free in the next 30 days, Microsoft announced yesterday.

Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 is a hypervisor product that can be used to create abstract (non-physical) servers. The Application Virtualization 4.5 software allows Windows Vista users to effectively stream applications to their desktop – using network resources instead of local.

System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 is the centerpiece of Microsoft’s virtualization package. The company wants to eliminate the feature comparison between competing virtualization products and shift focus to who offers the best approach to managing virtual machines. Right now, there is no easy way to manage an organization’s virtualized environment from end-to-end, says Bruce Cowper, chief security advisor, Microsoft Canada Co.

“The competition has its own tools for doing different parts of that, and bringing it together is really key,” he says. “The complexity can make it a lot harder for organizations to keep on top of everything.”

Microsoft’s push into the virtualization market is no surprise. The practice of boosting the efficiency of physical machines by running multiple virtual servers on them promises many benefits including organizational cost-savings and the energy-use reductions are a hit with Green IT proponents.

As many as one in four Canadian companies is looking to make some sort of virtualization-related purchase in the near future, says Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst with IDC Canada. In the large business market, more than one-third of servers are already running in a virtualized environment and now the smaller and mid-size markets are interested.

“It’s a pretty compelling cost-cutting story for a business of any size,” he says. “For each host that’s virtualized, you can save by our estimates up to $25,000 to $35,000 a year.”

Microsoft faces competition in the virtualization market from players such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix Systems and Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. With this recent launch, they are one step closer to “live migration”, or the ability to transfer a virtual server from one physical machine to another without any downtime. It’s a feature that VMware has supported since 2004, and Citrix Xensource has since last year.

A demonstration of this was done in Redmond on Monday, and will be released with the Windows Server 2008 R2 before the end of the fiscal year, Cowper says. Then the feature gap will be eliminated.

“It doesn’t really matter whose virtualization technology you’re using,” he says. “I think where our strength lies is in how you manage and maintain that environment.”

Talking about the value offered by a hypervisor has been reduced to zero, chimes in Brian Bourne, a Toronto-based analyst with CMS Consulting Inc., and a Microsoft Gold partner. The transition from a one-application, one-server model to a virtualized environment will result in fewer boxes, but more machines to manage. That means there is opportunity to provide an easy-to-use console that can keep track of all those machines.

“Even if VMware provides performance that is five per cent faster, who cares?” the analyst says. “The value to talk about is managing the environment. You’ll pick the right hypervisor based on the right role.”

To this end, the Virtual Machine Manager will be compatible with VMware hypervisors upon release and Microsoft plans to include Citrix compatibility on the next release. Even more compatibility with other vendors will be included down the road, Cowper says.

“We get a huge amount of businesses that have gone down the road with other technology,” he says. “Bringing the management of those technologies into one place becomes a big focus.”

The Workplace Safety & Insurance Board of Ontario has been using Microsoft’s Hyper-V in beta mode since February, through a technology adopter program with the software company. Since starting its virtualization project, 287 Intel servers running at 10 per cent capacity has transformed into 80 servers running at 90 per cent capacity.

“We’re able to put up to nine applications on a server and get up to as high as 85 to 90 per cent utilization off that server without compromising actual performance,” says Vince Jordan, director of IT with the board. The goal is to whittle its datacentre down to a mere 40 physical machines.

Making use of the Microsoft tool for managing VMware hypervisors has also been a plus, Jordan says. The tool will also allow them to switch from VMware’s hypervisor to Microsoft’s if they choose to do so in the future.

“Its migration abilities allow us to move away from our VMware licenses,” he says, “which is an opportunity because it is a little more expensive than our Microsoft software.”

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