With the recent early beta release of Microsoft's virtual machine software, the company is addressing a trend that customers are welcoming with open arms and willing pocket books –- server consolidation.
Last February, Microsoft purchased assets from Connectix, a privately held software company based in San Mateo, Calif., which had been developing the technology. The product is not due out until the end of this year. One of its greatest values is its ability to help IT shops consolidate operating systems and applications on a single server, thereby helping customers save money on physical servers, among other things.
Alfredo Pizzirani, group product manager on the Windows Server 2003 team said that Microsoft has been "truly surprised" by the intensity of the demand for this software. "The problem is very real," he said.
He also said that even though the product is in a pre-beta stage, meaning that the features are subject to change before the software reaches an official beta, Microsoft is seeing an especially high number of requests from customers who want to participate.
Virtual server software has three basic uses. The first one is to help migrate off of legacy applications that are already expensive to upgrade. For this to happen, the customer installs a copy of Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003 on a server, and Virtual Machine is installed on top of the operating system. The legacy OS or application runs on top of the Virtual Server.
Customers can have as many copies of the operating system on the server as the server can handle. "The problem today is that you can run one major application on a Windows server, so you can't get the maximum use of each server," said John Enck, vice president and research director at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn., consulting firm. "Virtual machine technology can help customers save on hardware costs."
Microsoft would like to enable people to run more than one application –- SQL Server, Exchange or the Web server -- using Windows Server 2003's Windows System Resource Manager, but it's not powerful enough, Enck said. This software lets customers manage CPU and memory on a per processor basis.
"We find our customers feel there is not enough protection between applications," he said.
IT managers also like the fact that virtual servers are helpful in testing and application development scenarios. Test labs can create as many virtual servers on a machine as they want and work on them to their heart's content, breaking them as often as they like.
Enck said that this is where most of the virtual server technologies are in use today. "We haven't seen much in terms of end user production servers yet," he said.
Peter Sellers, an MCSE and senior systems engineer for a large Midwestern utility, has used both the Connectix (Microsoft) technology and similar technology made by VMWare Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif.
He uses the Connectix software to create Microsoft Installer (MSI) packages from his desk and also to help train in a development test lab. Both products work well, though he said that Connectix is easier to install and also offers the option of running OS/2, which may be useful for some companies who are doing some server consolidation.
The Connectix software also comes with a fully created image of DOS on the installation media. "Though it's a Windows world, you should never underestimate the value of being able to create a little DOS floppy disk," Sellers said.
The utility is also evaluating the technology for consolidating its 300 servers onto fewer platforms, he said.
Microsoft will compete against VMWare, which is already well established in this market. VMWare makes GSX, which is a virtual machine that goes directly at Microsoft in that it runs within the operating system on the hardware. The company also makes ESX, which is a virtual server that runs directly on the hardware as its own host operating system.
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