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VMware Server 2 enters public beta

VMware Server may not have the bells and whistles of ESX, but that hasn't stopped VMware from expanding and improving on its free virtualization platform.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. continues to pump engineering resources into VMware Server, its free hosted virtualization product, which entered into public beta at midnight on Monday, Nov. 12, and should be generally available by the first half of 2008.

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Despite a zero-dollar price tag, VMware Server 2 "is actually a really good product for being free," said Gary Chen, a senior analyst focused on the small and medium-sized business market (SMB) at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston. Despite having a lucrative paying platform with Virtual Infrastructure 3 and ESX, the improvements to VMware Server signal that VMware will continue to update and innovate its flagship GSX Server platform, Chen said.

[VMware Server 2] is actually a really good product for being free.
Gary Chen,
senior analystYankee Group Research Inc.

New features in VMware Server 2 fall into three main buckets: platform support, performance, and ease of use, said Ben Matheson, VMware director of SMBs.

With VMware Server 2, the number of operating systems supported as guests increases to 30 different flavors of Windows, Linux, Sun Solaris and Novell Netware. New in VMware Server 2 are support for Windows Vista Business Edition and Ultimate Edition (guest only), Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, Windows Server 2008 (Longhorn Server beta 3) and Ubuntu Linux 7.10.

On the performance front, VMware has upped the maximum amount of memory that can be assigned to a guest virtual machine (VM) from 3.6 GB to 8 GB. VMware Server 2 now also supports two-way virtual symmetric multiprocssing -- the ability to assign multiple CPUs to a single VM -- and can recognize faster USB 2.0 devices. Finally, VMware Server 2 supports paravirtualized operating systems that support the VMI interface (to date, that means Ubuntu 7.10).

When it comes to management, VMware Server 2 has done away with its old management client and is now managed through a Web-based user interface. Matheson said the new Web UI is functionally equivalent to the old application and closely resembles the Virtual Infrastructure (VI3) that client VMware offers for managing higher-end ESX environments. "From a training standpoint, it's easy to transfer the skills you learn managing VMware Server to managing VI3," he said.

VMware ESX training ground
Eventually, this is exactly what VMware hopes most VMware Server 2 users will do: move to ESX. That's the trajectory Summit Pointe Healthcare took with VMware Server. About two years ago, Jason Villata, lead systems engineer at the Battle Creek, Mich., mental-health care provider began exploring virtualization by downloading VMware Server 1.0 beta. The organization has since virtualized almost all its x86 servers, with only a handful of its 100-plus VMs running on 12 ESX 3.x machines, hosting applications like databases, email, Web servers and application servers.

VMware Server still plays a role, though. "It's a good tool for tech-support people, since you can get a server up and running in, oh, five minutes. Plus, just because it's a server-class tool, you don't need to run it on server-class hardware," said Villata, who runs VMware Server on his laptop for testing or debugging purposes. The firm also uses VMware Server to host a handful of what Villata calls "utility class" applications -- that is, apps "that don't need 100% uptime" -- like wiki pages or Cisco's Secure Access Control Server (ACS) appliance.

But for the most part, Summit Pointe is an all-ESX shop, and VMware hopes other VMware Server users will follow suit.

Ultimately, the company regards VMware Server 2 as a "proliferation product," said Matheson. "Our goal is to broadly get as many people using it as possible" and then "convince them of the business value of VI3." To that end, VMware is also trying to eliminate some obstacles standing in the way of an eventual ESX upgrade. With VMware Server 2, VMs created on the platform will run natively on ESX.

Today moving a VM from VMware Server to an ESX host requires using VMware Converter or another physical-to-virtual tool, Matheson said. And eventually, the firm also plans to bring VMware Server 2 nodes under the domain of its VirtualCenter management framework. Today, VirtualCenter 2.x can manage only VI3 hosts, but opening that up to VMware Server hosts will happen "sooner rather than later," Matheson said.

But VMware still has a ways to go to get customers off VMware Server and on to ESX. According to Frmaingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC, at the end of 2006, VMware ESX enjoyed 53.5% of the x86 virtualization market, followed by VMware Server in the No. 2 position, with 33.6% share. Microsoft Virtual Server held the No. 3 spot, with 23.2% share.

Since then, VMware Server has passed the 3-million-download milestone, VMware reported. Revised market share statistics are due out in the Thanksgiving time frame. Observers are interested to see whether VMware has success with converting more of its free VMware Server users to its paying platform.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director.

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