Microsoft virtualisation Launch: Hype, rinse, repeat

Microsoft virtualisation Launch: Hype, rinse, repeat

Microsoft is good at bang-for-the-buck technology pricing. That's how it built its lead in network operating systems and email and web browsers and office suites. It's been the main argument Microsoft has used for its virtualisation products for months.

Microsoft had a lot to say, Tuesday, at a one-day press-and-analyst blowout that was more a marketing rally than a technology announcement. Most of it was a repeat of what it had said in the past: our virtualisation technology is as good as VMware's, it's a lot cheaper, and all the important pieces are either already shipping, are about to ship, or are developing fast enough we're happy to talk about it as if it had already shipped.

Microsoft announced Hyper-V would be available free, that Virtual Machine Manager 2008 would be available within 30 days, that VMM 2008 would be able to manage VMware servers, and that live migration was coming to Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V.

What it didn't talk about was caveats like licensing that's more restrictive than it needs to be. Microsoft has no intention of loosening up its rules so the OS in a virtual machine can be licensed on its own so that it can move from one server to another without requiring that both the source and destination server be licensed (separately).

That's not an issue if you buy the top-level, most expensive, Data Center license, Microsofties say. It is an issue if buy cheaper editions; they don't talk about that.

They also don't talk about live migration, except to say it isn't an issue according to what most of their Hyper-V users say.

That's great, and the Hyper-V users are perfectly sincere, and perfectly aware of the trade-offs (I've talked to them, too).

But taking their testimony to mean live migration isn't important to anyone is like asking fat guys in elephant hats on the floor at the Republican National Convention how good a VP Sarah Palin would be.

Your results would be clear enough, but you probably shouldn't assume they represent a cross-section of American voters.

Hyper-V users use Hyper-V because live migration isn't critical to them, not because they've forgiven Microsoft for not having it. If live migration is critical to you, you're not going to sign up as an early adopter for Microsoft. You're going to be in the other party's tent trying on donkey hats.

If live migration is important to you, you're stuck with VMware, at least until the next major version of Windows Server 2008 ships, probably in 2010, when Microsoft will also be able to do live migration. Until then it's not important and customers don't want it anyway.

Microsoft also talked a lot about its management tools. Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008, which will ship within 30 days, Microsoft promises , are the equal of anything at VMware, Microsoft SVP Bob Muglia told me in a phone interview before the event.

Well, VMM is good at capacity planning and identifying which server has the most capacity if you're going to launch a new VM or take an inventory of what's running already, according to Robert McShinsky, senior systems engineer at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Dartmouth is in the middle of a migration from Virtual Server to Hyper-V, and has been using Microsoft virtualisation products since 2005.

There's not a lot of functionality there to help control virtual-server sprawl, though, which is a much bigger issue than whether you have to shut down an application before you can move it from one VM to another, he says.

Buying Microsoft also lets you manage both VMware and Microsoft virtual infrastructures from the same set of tools, according to Microsoft COO Kevin Turner, who is also in charge of the company's internal IT.

Yeah, but, VMware doesn't publish APIs that would let anyone else manage ESX natively. So customers who want to manage ESX servers from within Systems Center have to buy VMware's management products first. But if you'd already bought them, why would you use Microsoft's management interface to use them, losing some of your functionality in the process?

Muglia-who didn't get to head up the servers and tools division at Microsoft by conceding that any Microsoft servers or tools suffer in comparison to anyone else's -said Hyper-V "is rock solid technically, performs at the same level as ESX, provides a broader set of management capabilities, including managing VMware in addition to the Microsoft environment. It will [also] be about a third of the price that VMware offers."

You'll have to forgive my nostalgia, but that sounds an awful lot like claims Microsoft made about its products when it was chasing technically superior competitors in the NOS market, the email/collaboration market, the Web browser market, the word processing market, and who knows how many others.

In the mid-'90s, for example, Novell's NetWare was king of the LAN and Microsoft was struggling to catch up with versions of Windows NT Server that had a lot more ambition than capability, in many cases.

NetWare's security was far more solid than NT's, it was faster, its directory could deliver real single-sign-on authentication across a global network, and it could reliably replicate both data and directory information to reduce the risk of disaster in case one server failed. Microsoft made the same claims about NT 3.51 and NT 4, though it took a lot more jury rigging, security patching and manual effort to make it comparable to NetWare in any of those capacities.

But NT could reliably run applications like an email server or a lightweight database as well as connecting end users to printers and files. So customers could install one server in a branch office or a server closet or a department LAN rather than buying one as a file server and another to serve applications. Microsoft ported all the applications it could to run on NT servers, recruited the hell out of ISVs to do the same, and tweaked most of its management and administration tools to be able to handle NetWare servers as well as NT.

Pretty soon people were buying app servers that could also do some networking, even if it took a little jury rigging to get the network to work. It was just easier and cheaper than buying two servers and learning largely incompatible operating systems.

Right now no one at Microsoft is admitting that Hyper-V or VMM is in any way inferior to VMware, though even committed Hyper-V users say VMware is better technology. They just don't feel they need that level of capability, and aren't willing to pay for it.

Bob Muglia says Microsoft is relying on customers to make the rational decision between Hyper-V and VMware. By 'rational' he means 'cheap,' though, not 'reflective of a deep cost/benefit analysis of management functions and IT administrative costs.'

Most technology purchases, no matter how sophisticated-looking the ROI calculations and cost justification, don't depend on rational analysis of cost versus savings in time and effort.

They depend on the upfront cost and the most obvious potential for savings. In this case that's the cost of the software vs. the amount saved from consolidating little servers into big ones, not a comparison of long-term administrative costs.

Microsoft is good at bang-for-the-buck technology pricing. That's how it built its lead in network operating systems and email and web browsers and office suites. It's been the main argument Microsoft has used for its virtualisation products for months ¬ far longer than the products themselves have been generally available.

It was the argument it relied on yesterday, less than a week before VMworld, the multi-day technical and user conference at which you can bet VMware will roll out not only new technology, but possibly a new strategy for dealing with 'rational' technology decisions about virtualisation.

I expect Microsoft to keep talking all the way through it.

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