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Microsoft and XenSource cooperate for server interoperability

Microsoft said development has begun on technology that provides interoperability between Xen-enabled Linux and Microsoft Windows Server. Coupled with IBM's Xen endorsement, experts are seeing it as a broadside against VMware.

An expanded collaboration announced today between Microsoft and XenSource Inc. could offer more flexibility and lower costs for IT managers who are already using Microsoft Virtual Server but are looking for a mixed Windows-Linux environment.

Microsoft announced plans earlier this year to develop a hypervisor-based Windows Server, code-named Longhorn, for release sometime in 2007. But the technology resulting from the collaboration with XenSource could help Microsoft customers consolidate Windows and Xen-enabled Linux distributions in a virtualized environment, said Jeff Price, a senior director in the Microsoft Windows Server group.

The announcement highlights the growing number of options that make up virtualization universe, where IT managers can choose to buy VMware for thousands of dollars or use open source products like Xen for free.

To Microsoft watchers, the announcement was important because the company has rarely made reference to Linux virtualization on the hypervisor until now, said Tony Iams, a senior analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based IDEAS International Inc. Also noteworthy was the source -- it came out of a group headed by Bill Hilf, general manager of competitive strategy at Microsoft, he said.

"This is a fairly significant step," Iams said. "They were already able to support Linux on Virtual Server -- and for some time already -- but you had to wonder how credible that all was, given that they were the ones that had to do all the development for that," he added.

And now, without the help of other Xen supporters like Novell and Red Hat – both of which have laid out plans to "bake-in" Xen with their commercial Linux distributions – Microsoft is now enabling Linux to work on Virtual Server. "By enabling Xen now, [Microsoft] is actually going to be able to draw on resources outside of itself to make sure Linux works well on the hypervisor," said Iams.

That level of third-party support speaks well of Hilf's group, Iams said, even as criticism from the open source community at large has been heavy at a Microsoft Web site, called Port 25, that was designed to bolster communication between open source advocates and Microsoft.

"This gives them credit for their promises made with XenSource that this will be just as suitable to run on Windows as it will be for Linux," Iams said.

Other experts argued that the move was just the latest attempt by big vendors to wrest away control of the Intel-based x86 virtualization market from market leader VMware Inc., a Palo alto, Calif.-based subsidiary of EMC Inc.

Companies are following suit. IBM and Novell contributed to the assault on Monday with the announcement that they would back Xen across the entire line of Big Blue's hardware portfolio.

"Who's the leader of the band when it comes to virtualization on Intel-based system? VMware," said Joe Clabby, the president of Yarmouth, Maine-based Clabby Analytics. "Now [Microsoft and XenSource] get together with their hypervisor, which interoperates with Xen and open source stuff and not VMware. This is a real, solid threat to EMC and VMware," he said.

And although Xen is still largely an experimental technology, Clabby dismissed concerns that it would not be ready for prime time soon.

"That's how it works -- people begin by playing with open source software because it is not as mature, then they go and install VMware. But at some point, this hypervisor is going to be strong enough to challenge," he said. "When Microsoft and IBM jump in, both are clearly aimed at making Xen and open source rich enough to challenge VMware."

If that happens, then the new challenge for customers becomes whether they should buy VMware or get Xen for free, Clabby said.

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