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Can Microsoft win the virtualization war against VMware?

Can VMware outrun competition from Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization? While Hyper-V has changed virtualization pricing, VMware's superior performance is still the brass ring.

Whether Microsoft can do to VMware what it's done to other tech incumbents over the past 20 years depends very much on whom you ask. Microsoft's history is rife with examples of how it came to a market late, launched a product that was underfeatured but cheaper than a competitor's rival technology and ultimately owned the market.

Microsoft partisans -- IT professionals in Windows shops and Microsoft Gold partners -- say that the software giant can and will displace VMware Inc.'s server virtualization dominance much as it dispatched Novell's NetWare franchise.

The VMware camp, on the other hand, contends that unlike Novell or WordPerfect or Lotus or Netscape Communications, which faced Microsoft incursions, VMware keeps changing the rules. The VMware-ESX-versus-Hyper-V hypervisor war is now moot as VMware pushes further into virtualiztion management, the cloud and other areas, they say.

VMware is not Novell
"What makes VMware different than, say, Novell, is that Novell kept competing in Microsoft's space rather than innovating. It kept fighting in the same boundaries and markets, on Microsoft's terms," said Scott Lowe, a virtualization expert formerly at a large VMware partner. [ Editor's note: As a matter of full disclosure: He recently took a position at VMware parent company EMC Corp.]

"VMware is trying to change the nature of the battle itself. Virtualization is something that VMware [pretty much] created, then Microsoft came along. Now VMware is less focused on virtualization itself and more on what it can accomplish. Virtualization is not the end game anymore but a mechanism to achieve an end result: cloud computing, private clouds and public clouds. Not just Infrastructure as a Service but Platform as a Service versus Microsoft Azure with [VMware's acquisition of] SpringSource ," Lowe said.

And if it occurs, a rumored VMware acquisition of Zimbra will be the first step toward Software as a Service, yet another flavor of cloud computing, he maintained.

Lowe and others initially disapproved of the elevation of Paul Maritz to the role of VMware CEO . Observers saw him as too closely linked with EMC, which < href="">bought Pi Corp., a Maritz-led startup. That meant less of an arms'-length relationship between EMC and VMware which in turn, strained VMware's ties to important partners such as Hewlett-Packard Co.

Now some of these critics see Maritz, a former senior Microsoft exec, as a plus for VMware, because he knows how Microsoft thinks and works. And they credit him with having a broader vision of what virtualization can accomplish and which markets it can open.

Virtualization pricing pressure
Both sides agree on one thing: Microsoft's basically free Hyper-V changed virtualization pricing for good. That's not good news for VMware, which has was able to charge a premium. Now the revenue opportunity is more in the management and other tools. But with the availability of credible Xen- and Kernel-based Virtual Machine (or KVM) alternatives, hypervisor prices were bound to erode anyway, some experts say.

"Yes, Microsoft will hurt VMware by acting as a check on its ability to set pricing as the dominant player," said Paul Degroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm. Microsoft's strategy is to give away as much of VMware's virtualization product as possible and make up the difference in pricey management tools such as Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Man ager and Forefront, Degroot said via email.

"VMware responds with significantly lower pricing for the management tools and with overall pricing roughly comparable, it maintains a performance lead."

Microsoft's advantage with partners, SMBs
Microsoft's virtualization push resonates in many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) where VMware is often considered too expensive. This perception benefits Microsoft because many SMBs have barely begun to virtualize and thus offer an opportunity for Microsoft's penetration.

Jane Cage, the COO of the Heartland Group, a Joplin, Mo.-based Microsoft Gold partner, said her customers -- which are mostly Windows shops-- have been receptive to the Hyper-V message, though a large percentage of them have not yet adopted virtualization.

Microsoft executives from CEO Steve Ballmer on down have earmarked virtualization as a huge priority but it is just one of many major priorities, from Web search to consumer electronics. And some see that as diluting the company's focus.

And, Microsoft's virtualization message falls flat among customers with mixed Windows-and-Linux environments or that want easy virtual machine coexistence.

Microsoft's biggest issue is how closely tied its virtualization technology is tied to its native file system, said Mark Crescenzi, the president of Prismworks Technology Inc., a Hummelstown, Pa.-based systems integrator with a virtualization practice.

"Microsoft needs to move away from NTFS [NT file system] if [it] wants to do to VMware what it's done to others," he noted.

The current file system allows only one host to access a logical unit number (LUN)at one time. "So if you have multiple servers and want flawless server migration from host to host as you get with VMware, you need an individual LUN per server and [for] anyone that uses a lot of servers—this is not something they want to do. It's much more difficult to manage," Crescenzi said.

Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf said Microsoft has made progress on this issue with the asynchronous cluster volume manager in Windows Server 2008 R2 but it is still not a true cluster file system like VMware's VMFS. But, in many cases, CSV has not hindered adoption.

"Some clients like the CSV [Cluster Shared Volumes] failover model. A physical node can lose all connectivity to a SAN [storage area network] LUN and redirect storage I/O over the LAN to another node that is physically connected to the SAN LUN." Wolf noted.

And Wolf maintained that the Hyper-V-NTFS limitation centers more on locking at the file , not the LUN, level. That can be an issue because it is what allows simultaneous writes from cluster nodes sharing the same LUNs.

On the other hand, NTFS is not required for Hyper-V, he said. Some clients use Sanbolic's Melio FS with Hyper-V to resolve the issue.

Crescenzi and others also say Microsoft still lags VMware significantly in performance. Crescenzi also cites VMware's stronger cross-platform story. "There's a lot of Windows out there, but it's very rare for a shop to be 100% Microsoft," he said.

Microsoft Hyper-V good enough for the masses?
Eighteen months ago, analyst Joe Clabby, the president of Yarmouth, Maine-based Clabby Analytics, predicted that Microsoft would overtake VMware and took some heat for that stance. Now he has a more nuanced view of how the hypervisor battle will shake out and sees VMware and Microsoft as winners.

As the server market consolidates with mainframes at the high end, Unix and high-end Linux boxes in the middle, and Intel x86 boxes at the low end, there's room for both contenders, said Clabby, president.

"A lot of people will move to x86 from bigger boxes and they'll choose Windows or Linux. Microsoft's not going to win in Linux, leaving that door open for VMware, Citrix and KVM. Microsoft will take care of the other, Windows-oriented segment," he said.

Microsoft has superior physical systems management with its Systems Center management suite, and Hyper-V fits into that well.

Of course, Microsoft's Hyper-V and related management tools may be fine for most shops, many of which are not familiar with the upside of virtualization and that is something VMware needs to realize.

Ironically, some observers think that the biggest threat to Microsoft andto VMware alike is that virtualization is a great tool for keeping legacy applications and hardware running. "As those applications are retired, demand for virtual hardware will decline. Where it continues it will be because it's a cheap way to boost server utilization and little more and then the free tools will become good enough for most customers," Degroot said.

Barb Darrow is a senior news director for Write to her at

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