In-Depth

Microsoft: The Great Server

Redmond is looking to streamline the application process via its Windows Azure Platform, but it can't ignore server virtualization or VDI if it wants to overtake VMware.

Microsoft wants you to know that the company is really bullish on virtualization. Redmond knows virtualization slashes IT expenses, rolls back the costs of deploying Windows and provides a steppingstone to the cloud. That's why Microsoft includes it with Windows Server 2008.

Microsoft also wants you to think about the benefits of virtualization -- server consolidation, better business continuity, offline patching, provisioning and updates -- and realize you can have those complicated capabilities built into the cloud with the Windows Azure Platform, the Microsoft public cloud platform that lets you pay for what you use. Windows Azure allows users to develop, run and replicate their applications via Platform as a Service (PaaS) in Microsoft datacenters around the world, without having to virtualize them first. Microsoft isn't talking about server consolidation; it's aiming for server elimination.

According to Dave Bartoletti, senior analyst at the Taneja Group, success in the cloud is all about apps, and Windows Azure is currently ahead of VMware Inc. in that regard.

"I think Microsoft is trying to change the conversation away from virtualization as an infrastructure technology to virtualization as simply an enabler for application delivery," says Bartoletti. "I think that takes them back to their strengths. Where Microsoft really owns us is from an application standpoint."

In order to drive home his point, he notes that when they buy new PCs, many people have a discussion with themselves. Do they want to recreate the core set of Microsoft applications that they love, or would they prefer to go in a new direction with Google Apps and Gmail instead of Exchange? Or maybe it's time to consider an infrastructure or PaaS from someone like Salesforce.com Inc.

"Microsoft wants to stem that discussion," Bartoletti declares. "They want to make the standard Microsoft application stack easy to deliver from anywhere, and to look as cloud-enabled as possible."

Successful Cloud Customers
David Greschler, Microsoft's director of Virtualization Strategy, says Microsoft has already arrived in the cloud, claiming the company has more than 10,000 Windows Azure customers, including The Coca-Cola Company and OSI Restaurant Partners LLC (which runs Outback Steakhouse), who are scaling up and down dramatically. Mike Neil, general manager of Windows Server and Server Virtualization, elaborates on the Outback Steakhouse implementation by saying the company wanted to do a promotion to their customers that would get 500,000 of them to sign up in return for a blooming onion. Outback wanted to develop the application very quickly, so it did it in Windows Azure over a two-month period. The goal was to get people excited and in to their local Outback Steakhouse as soon as possible. In the end, the company burned through that half-million people in a little over two weeks, and it was able to scale its cloud capacity up and down to accommodate customer response. Outback just paid for what it needed, and the company didn't over-provision its own hardware.

Neil further stresses the cost efficiency of Windows Azure by comparing it to a more expensive alternative from a major managed services and cloud provider. If a customer goes to that provider to get a cloud-based virtual machine (VM), he says it's the equivalent experience of having a physical machine somewhere off in somebody else's datacenter. The customer still has to worry about what OS they're going to run inside of it, so they still have to do the management, patching, maintenance and updates.

"In that case I'm not paying for the hardware as a capital expense," Neil says. "I'm paying it as an operational expense, but I still have all the operational expense of managing it. With Azure, we provide you with an environment to run your application. We manage all of the underpinnings for you, and that significantly reduces those costs for customers."

Neil adds that providing that sort of consistency, allowing the customer to develop an on-premises application, run it with a services provider, or run it in one of the Microsoft datacenters with Windows Azure, is the kind of customer experience Microsoft wants to provide.

The Battle Rages
At this point, Microsoft and VMware are fierce competitors locked in a high-stakes battle. Microsoft is chipping away at VMware's virtualization hegemony with a stable of products, including Hyper-V, Microsoft System Center, Microsoft Application Virtualization (or App-V), VDI Suites and Windows Azure. VMware is keeping pace with the new vSphere 4.1 and updated versions of ThinApp and View. VMware still has a commanding lead, but the company's carefree days are behind it.

When I met with Greschler and Neil at VMworld, they took VMware to task for being too fixated on, of all things, virtualization, saying: "They only have one trick, you know." Neil notes, "Virtualization is the core of what they do. They have to sell a virtualization solution for them to be successful in their business. That's where they're driving customers, but it isn't necessarily where customers want to go."

Eager to drive home Microsoft's competitive edge, Neil says that VMware shop CH2M HILL, a Fortune 500 engineering firm with offices around the world, is switching to Microsoft Hyper-V because the company finds it easier to maintain and manage in its environments. The company also says it's less expensive than VMware, a charge that resonates with many VMware customers. When asked if CH2M HILL is ripping out its whole VMware infrastructure, Neil explains, "Yes, they're switching over. It's actually not that hard for a customer to switch from VMware. We run on the same hardware. In fact, we run on more hardware than they do, and our management solutions manage both VMware and Microsoft so they provide the single management tool for the customer who might be in transition. They can run and manage their VMware infrastructure that they have today, stand up their Hyper-V infrastructure, and move their workloads very easily across the two."

No Winner in Sight
Apprised of Microsoft's depiction of VMware as a one-trick pony, Mark Margevicius, vice president and research director at Gartner Inc., says he sees value in both the Microsoft and VMware virtualization philosophies. He says Microsoft adds value by offering virtualization as a feature on a server product that still has a lot to offer even if the customer doesn't use virtualization. Regarding VMware, he notes how customers have the flexibility to add value components such as desktop virtualization and manageability to the baseline vSphere and ESX technologies.

Margevicius doesn't see a competitive cloud advantage for either competitor, saying, "I don't know how successful either has been around the delivery of cloud-based services with their core products. I think both will struggle as cloud offerings evolve because their products, for the most part, were not designed with cloud in mind. They may have morphed to cloud offerings, but I don't necessarily agree that either one is better situated at this point for wide-scale adoption in the cloud space."

Dynamic Memory, Not Memory Overcommit
In its position as Microsoft's primary hypervisor, Hyper-V is on the line to perform against the best its competitors can muster, and toward that goal, the company partnered very closely with Intel Corp. and AMD Inc. on VT and V technologies, respectively, to make sure the chip makers' hardware could handle virtualization. Microsoft then built Hyper-V on top of it. Going forward, Microsoft has continued to work with Intel and AMD on memory and I/O virtualization to drive down hypervisor overhead to the point where Hyper-V users can run large, compute-intensive, disk-intensive and network-intensive workloads.

"We have customers running SQL, Exchange and so on within those environments and they're all very happy with the results they're getting from a performance standpoint," Neil says.

The lack of a memory overcommit capability became a sore point for Hyper-V, which had also been slow to receive live migration capabilities. Microsoft addressed the memory overcommit issue in Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 -- which debuted in public beta this June, and was still in that position as of early October. The answer was dynamic memory, a technology Microsoft believes is less risky than memory overcommit, which VMware supports. Memory overcommit is a hypervisor feature that enables a VM to consume more memory space than a physical host has available.

With the dynamic memory capability of Hyper-V, guests participate with the hypervisor in managing memory across all of the VMs that are running. This is done by splitting up the physical memory to all the VMs, and moving it back and forth between VMs as necessary. This is done in a way that makes the guest OS running inside the VM aware of the dynamically shifting memory, so it's never overcommitted.

"This way you get a lot of the same benefits from this sense of getting more virtual instances on the one physical box, getting the density much higher, but you get less risk from the standpoint of not overcommitting your resources, and you're not getting into a situation where you're going to see performance degradation and failure," Neil says.

Bartoletti believes that despite advances with Hyper-V, VMware still has at least a five-year, "pure technology" lead on both Citrix XenServer and Hyper-V. According to him, the recent releases of both those products are just beginning to catch up with VMware in terms of raw performance, raw scalability and raw power in the datacenter. "That's why I think we see so much more discussion from Microsoft about the desktop, and a much tighter integration with Citrix, who in many cases owns the desktop and owns application delivery to the desktop," Bartoletti says.

Neil says Hyper-V has already proven its technical chops by competing against VMware in the still-lucrative server virtualization market, where VMware has reigned supreme for so long. "We're slowing their growth, we're taking their market share and we're going faster in the market," he declares.

Margevicius is less interested in technical comparisons between Hyper-V and vSphere than he is in determining which product is the best value. He says customers who are well entrenched with virtualization, have standardized on VMware and really push the boundaries of its feature set consider VMware to be a better product, if not necessarily the best value.

"However, for users who are just getting started and have minimal requirements, value is more important, and Hyper-V, being embedded within the server product, is clearly viewed by many customers who are not in virtualization yet as a very strong alternative," he adds.

VDI: Composable Desktops, Folder Redirection
Microsoft takes a measured approach to Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). As Greschler describes it, the space got defined by a lot of VDI hype that gained momentum when people said that it would be a great idea to take either Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7, put it on a server and remote it to employee desktops. The idea sounded great in principal, Greschler notes, but it has a "huge set of headaches" associated with it. The first problem is, users are just moving the problems they had on their desktops to their servers. The second problem is that they're building out big server farms, which he compares to the VMware approach.

Greschler says the Microsoft approach to VDI -- which relies on Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager -- involves breaking up the components of the desktop so they can be composed in real time wherever they're needed. As he explains it, there are applications inside the OS that Microsoft virtualizes with App-V -- its application virtualization software -- enabling them to be delivered on-demand, without conflicts, via network streaming. "So they're just data files delivered to your desktop, that fire and run without impacting your OS," he states.

This is accomplished through the use of folder redirection, a component of Windows 7 that enables users to redirect their files to a server where they're replicated and saved. This includes personal settings -- such as personalization or user state virtualization -- which may include things such as a user's photo of children, toolbar settings, or choice of icons for their start menu or video screen. All of these profiles are replicated before they're redirected to storage.

So what are the business benefits? Greschler says if your laptop is stolen, you can log back in, and based on the last time your data was replicated with folder redirection, you can literally restore the desktop down to the photos of your children and your toolbar settings.

VDI Suites
According to Sumit Dhawan, vice president for Citrix XenDesktop product marketing, "The Microsoft VDI Suites are built for enterprise customers looking to run VDI-based desktops that can be delivered to users remotely. However, it's a platform and is only consumable for enterprise use when used with an enterprise solution, such as XenDesktop."

The Standard and Premium VDI Suites enable customers to buy different components of the server and management infrastructure required to run VDI via a single license. The VDI Standard Suite is designed to enable organizations to deploy a basic VDI environment, and includes Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 and several System Center components, such as System Center Virtual Machine Manager, System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2, and System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2. Applications are dynamically delivered via App-V, and the Standard Suite also enables restricted use rights for Remote Desktop Services (RDS) to deliver VDI desktops to users. As Neil notes, "I think people lose sight of the fact that there are more customers using Terminal Services, now called RDS, than there are running VDI today."

The VDI Premium Suite provides additional VDI flexibility -- RDS is unrestricted, for example -- which allows users to deliver both session-based and VDI desktops. Also included is App-V for RDS, which Microsoft says enables organizations to dynamically deliver applications to the RDS server, reducing silos of RDS applications.

The Microsoft-Citrix Relationship
Given the frequently cited close relationship between Microsoft and Citrix Systems Inc., it's hardly surprising that Dhawan would be an expert in any Microsoft virtualization products. Notes Greschler, "On the RDS space, we had a relationship with Citrix for 15 years before virtualization came on." That relationship also encompasses the management side of things, where there's a lot of integration between Citrix and System Center. For example, there are announced plans for System Center to manage XenServer in the future, and it already manages VMware. This flexibility and interoperability with heterogeneous environments gives Microsoft an edge with customers who may want to run separate production, test and development environments.

Margevicius says System Center is designed to be an ecosystem of manageability around Microsoft products, adding, "Here in the management space, Microsoft gets very good results, and for the most part is viewed very favorably by its customers. They like System Center and System Center does a nice job for them."

End Game
Bartoletti thinks it all comes down to Microsoft and VMware, with Citrix somehow being folded into Microsoft because of Microsoft's domination at the application layer. He foresees the emergence of a bifurcated market where VMware hangs on to its server virtualization business and ultimately lives or dies over the next three-to-four years based on the evolving relationship between desktop virtualization and cloud computing. He sees the cloud as a way to attack the desktop, and if Microsoft or VMware really makes the cloud much more attractive, Bartoletti predicts there will be a major shift in what people expect from desktop virtualization.

"I think what we're going to start seeing is who can package the real application stack, and this is where VMware's behind Microsoft," he says. "Packaging the application stack for desktop delivery is going to be key. I think what we'll probably see is VMware tracking what's going on in the smartphone space and trying to partner with a huge competitor of Microsoft's, such as Google."

Margevicius says VMware will have to find value and differentiation beyond virtualization in order to continue its success. "If virtualization becomes commoditized and readily available within the OS platform that most people are going to deploy anyway, the value of something like VMware, which requires that a premium be paid, has to be defined and used by those customers," he says. "So VMware has to continue to push in order to remain relevant."

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