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VMware’s ESX 3i for free?

The Inquirer recently published a story on how Dell is considering giving away VMware VI 3i licensing on its PowerEdge servers. While I won’t rehash the details of the rumor here, I’ll add my opinion and analysis on why this bold move is being made, since it appears VMware is actively supporting this tactic after having said that hardware vendors will be free to choose what fees to charge customers for 3i, if any.

Hypervisors are destined to become a commodity item, even more so than other software, because everyone will be utilizing virtualization within the next few years. Dell and VMware aren’t reacting so much to competition from Virtual Iron, Hyper-Hype (oops, I mean Hyper-V) or Virtuozzo as they are to Phoenix’s Hyperspace and Xen’s Embedded offering. Hyperspace is the big target here, as it’s embedded virtualization from a BIOS manufacturer.

Putting a hypervisor at that level takes the old “I need to dual boot” equation from power-users who need access to Linux and Windows or Mac and Windows, etc., to another level in addition to being another virtualization offering. Virtualization originally took that need away for most people. I for one stopped dual booting and ran Linux in Windows, Windows in Linux and Windows and Linux in Mac via virtualization products from the minute I got my mitts on VMware Workstation all the way through Parallels Desktop. Now, Phoenix is turning the tables, and taking virtualization away from being built on top of the BIOS like a conventional OS and making a run to own the space from the board-level up. Phoenix is virtually going from the niche unthought-of product to an enteprise contender (no pun intended.)

VMware saw this coming. It anticipated the inevitable, embedded hypervisor, which is why 3i came out in the first place. It also knows that we, the computer-consuming public, don’t really consider the BIOS when we buy a computer (be it a personal machine or a server.) We don’t even realize that we pay for the BIOS, because BIOS builders charge chip- and board-level makers a licensing fee. That licensing fee per machine is passed on to us in the cost of the board, and it’s minimal.

I am convinced this is where virtualization is headed: Virtualization will be a commodity, practically free for all without needing much to install or configure after the fact. VMware is betting on this core hypervisor as a lead-in to its flagship products. I expect VMware to focus this new strategy of transitioning customers from base-level embedded hypervisor to high-end pricing on management, replication, storage, etc.

Dell is also wise to this trend. They see the advantage of the embedded hypervisor as much as they saw the advantage of selling VMware’s ESX product line pre-installed on their hardware. They see that sooner or later everything they sell will have virtualization built-in. I expect them to sell Hyperspace alongside 3i. I also expect that will need to make the price points equivalent, lest there be howls from customers buying Hyperspace wanting to upgrade to a higher-level of virtualization management.

Advanced features like VMotion, DRS, HA, CB, etc. are licensed at the license server level, making 3i as good a choice for virtualization as ESX 3.5. This comes from VMware’s own 3i announcement:

“VMware ESX Server 3i is the new architectural foundation for VMware Infrastructure 3, the most widely deployed virtualization software suite for optimizing and managing industry-standard IT environments. VMware customers will be able to easily implement the entire suite of VMware Infrastructure 3 products on top of this foundation, including VirtualCenter, VMotion, Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS), High Availability (HA) and VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB).”

As it stands, 3i is cheap at around $500, so don’t expect this shift in pricing to impact VMware’s bottom line.

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I think this is inevitable - once we do get cheap VMware I believe we'll start to get better and more efficient VDI installations at Future vision of VDI? What if the Hypervisor was cheaper and flexible enough to run on BladePC’s/BladeWS’s - could vMotion/XenMotion then switch on demand?