Microsoft's Virtualization Moves Still Lag

Two years on, Microsoft’s flagship offering still can’t hold a candle to VMWare. The question is when, if ever, will the software giant close the gap?

When it comes to virtualization, mainframe types have it made: MVS, S/390, and zSeries mainframes offer best-in-class capabilities. Indeed, the Big Iron virtualization paradigm—which effectively lets users divvy up mainframe processing power into LPARs that are a minuscule fraction of the size of the host processor—is the gold standard to which all other systems aspire.

In the distributed space—more specifically, in the Intel server space—VMWare Inc. has long been the best-known name in virtualization. Although several competitors market solutions that compete against VMWare’s developer- (VMWare Workstation) and production-oriented (GSX and ESX Server) virtualization solutions—and even though VMWare itself is no longer an autonomous entity (having been purchased last year by EMC Corp.)—the company remains the go-to vendor for Intel-based virtualization technologies.

That’s in spite of the best efforts of Microsoft Corp., which has ponied up serious cash, along with millions of additional dollars in developer hours and product marketing funds, to position its Windows Virtual Server as a compelling alternative to VMWare’s established offerings. With two product releases under its belt and a much-anticipated Windows Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack release waiting in the wings, Microsoft’s flagship virtualization offering remains a crude shadow of VMWare’s offerings.

The question, of course, is when—if ever—will the software giant close the gap?

Comparing Products

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata Inc., is hesitant to compare VMWare’s virtualization technologies with those of the zSeries mainframe. Haff is also loath to juxtapose Intel-based virtualization technologies with RISC/Unix-based offerings—especially since IBM Corp. now supports micro-partitioning on its iSeries and pSeries servers.

Nevertheless, says Haff, VMWare’s ESX Server offering is similar to Big Blue’s VM, in that it does not require an underlying host operating system, but is, in actuality, a virtualization-friendly host operating environment unto itself. ESX Server does offer compelling value, particularly in the data centers of today, where a lack of processor horsepower typically isn’t a problem.

“Insufficient CPU horsepower is not really a pressing issue in most of today's datacenters. Thanks to Moore's Law, most servers have plenty to spare. The issue is pairing that plentiful capacity with the workloads that need it in an efficient and dynamic way,” writes Haff, along with Illuminata colleagues Thomas Deane and Jonathan Eunice, in an Illuminata research bulletin.

In addition to Microsoft, Illuminata researchers note, VMWare faces competition from storage management software giant Veritas, which recently notched a pair of virtualization-related acquisitions, as well as IBM Corp. (micro-partitioning on both iSeries and pSeries) and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Solaris 10 Containers). Nevertheless, it’s clearly the cream of the crop in the x86 virtualization space.

“[VMWare] has production products for x86, today—and they are field- and marketplace-proven. It's moved forward with higher-level capabilities such as VirtualCenter and VMotion, and seems likely to do even more within EMC's ILM and disaster-tolerance strategies in the quarters and years to come,” they write. “Moreover, VMware is one of very few who have the deep experience needed to create, harden, and optimize complex, sophisticated virtualization products. There's an enormous difference between having things that run in the labs or that can be cobbled together to play around with on a PC and things that are genuinely production-ready. In this regard, VMware could still have a year or even multi-year lead on many competitors.”

This seems especially so given the shortcomings of Microsoft’s Virtual Server product, which—in the high-end, especially—simply isn’t a competitive alternative to VMWare’s ESX Server.

Given the software giant’s questionable evolution of the Virtual Server product, however, VMWare’s lead looks to be secure.

Microsoft's Unclear Vision

By all accounts, Microsoft’s initial entrée into the world of virtualization—Virtual Server 2004—was a disappointment, at least relative to VMWare’s GSX Server platform, and certainly in light of VMWare’s ESX Server offering.

Two years ago, Microsoft gave its fledgling Virtual Server technology (which was then—early 2003—allegedly ready to ship) a shot in the arm with the acquisition of Connectix, a company that at the time enjoyed a minority share of the Intel-based virtualization market. The Connectix technology couldn’t necessarily compete with VMWare’s established offerings, but Microsoft hoped to exploit a familiar strategy—i.e., leveraging its Windows technology stack—to grow its share of the virtualization market.

But Microsoft’s virtualization strategy has itself changed since it acquired the Connectix technology. At the time, the company was still running with the "consolidation, consolidation everywhere" message that has been its bread and butter since the Windows 2000 launch.

Over the same period, notes Illuminata’s Haff, VMWare expanded its vision of virtualization to include not just massively consolidated server resources, but, instead, the infrastructure (memory, storage, networks) in toto.

Two years on, it appears that Microsoft is singing the same tune. Perhaps the leading-edge moves of Linux competitors Red Hat Inc. and Novell Corp., which both plan to incorporate virtualization capabilities directly into forthcoming distributions of their Linux operating environments, forced the software giant’s hand.

“All operating systems have essentially been in the business to some degree in some way, shape, and form of virtualization for all time. That's how operating systems grew up. Windows grew up virtualizing the screen, the printers, et cetera; so virtualization in a sense is not a new concept," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the company’s Management Summit several months ago.

Bob Muglia, senior vice president for Microsoft’s Windows Server division, makes the point even more starkly. He sees virtualization as part of Microsoft's Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), which—as its name implies—describes a topology in which workloads can be moved (or resources shifted) dynamically between and among machines—or virtual images.

“Another important component of DSI is a transition to virtualization as a more standard element in IT,” says Muglia.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s vision is anything but clear. The Virtual Server 2005 SP1 release should introduce much-needed functionality, to be sure, but it still won’t recast that product as a solution on par with GSX Server, let alone the host-operating-system-unto-itself ESX Server. It does add Linux support, for example, and purports to address Virtual Server’s overhead issues—which several benchmark tests have shown to be more significant than those associated with VMWare’s GSX Server product—by adding 64-bit support.

Microsoft’s answer to VMWare’s ESX Server, on the other hand, is tentatively called “Hypervisor.”

To the extent that Microsoft appears to be directly incorporating virtualization capabilities (via hypervisor) directly into its Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) technology, the software giant could have a bona fide leg up on VMWare when it brings hypervisor to market—in 2008 or so.


VMWare, for its part, isn’t sitting still. The company has introduced data-center-oriented products (e.g., VirtualCenter and VMotion) and is currently trying to expand beyond its bread-and-butter server consolidation niche. In this respect, the Illuminata researchers note, VMWare’s strategy is dictated less by pressure from Microsoft than by a move (sanctioned by Microsoft, Red Hat, Novell, and other volume players) toward commodity virtualization.

“[E]ventually the combination of Microsoft, open source, and systems vendors' offering their own approaches will commoditize basic virtualization and consolidation capabilities,” write Deanne, Eunice, and Haff. “[VMWare] is also moving toward even more systematic outcomes such as facilitating IT auditability, disaster recovery, disaster tolerance, and change management. While perhaps more abstract and more difficult to simply explain than simple slice-and-dice, such high-level functions are no less valuable to large enterprises. Indeed, over time, they are more valuable.”