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The VMware-Microsoft hypervisor battle continues

Microsoft says VMware ESX costs too much, especially now that Hyper-V R2 includes free Live Migration. Can VMware beef up ESXi free edition to rival Hyper-V R2's functionality?

Virtualization Viewpoints is a semi-monthly column that discusses current VMware- and virtualization-related trends, news and topics. Here we offer opinions and viewpoints on the competitive, quickly growing and ever-changing virtualization industry with a focus on VMware, the current virtualization market leader, which is in an ongoing battle to remain on top and distance itself from its competitors.

Microsoft is still singing its Hyper-V theme song entitled "VMware costs way too much," as seen in Too many Virtual Iron customers in the fire, Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 RTM and Beware the VMware core tax. I'd like to suggest that before Microsoft casts the first stone, it considers the price of its OSes and Office productivity application. One could argue that Windows and Office cost too much when there are plenty of free alternatives.

In my opinion, this isn't heavy ammunition if it's the only ammunition Microsoft has when comparing its hypervisor to VMware's.

The cost of any product is usually determined by its quality, features and functionality, market demand and the cost to build it (in this case, research and development). As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive a product is the better its quality and the more features it has. If you are going to use a virtualization product to run most of your data center, wouldn't you want to use the best product? The virtualization layer is critical to the proper operation of your servers. Any problems with the virtualization layer will have a ripple effect on all your guest virtual machines (VMs).

Live Migration and VMotion
If I was considering using Hyper-V, I'd be concerned that in adding advanced functionality like Live Migration to Hyper-V's second release, Microsoft may have sacrificed product quality if it rushed to make its product more competitive with VMware ESX. Releasing new versions before they are ready can lead to quality control issues.

Hyper-V R2's Live Migration and shared data store functionality is functionality VMware had in 2003 when it released VMotion. Even the upcoming Linux guest operating support is something that VMware has supported for many years. While Microsoft seems to be playing catch up to its primary competitor in the virtualization space, VMware is continually adding new functionality such as vShield Zones and VMware Data Recovery and bundling them in new packages with the ESX hypervisor.

The bottom line when it comes to cost is you get what you pay for; better products cost more money for a reason. If you want the best virtualization product in your data center you're going to pay more for it.

That said, VMware's VMotion does cost more than Hyper-V R2's Live Migration. While Live Migration is free, there are a few costs that are involved if you want to use VMotion in a VMware environment. You can't use VMotion without vCenter Server, so you must purchase that, which is $2,000 for up to three hosts with the Foundation package, and $6,000 for unlimited hosts in the Standard package. Additionally, VMotion is only included in the Advanced and Enterprise editions of ESX and ESXi.

Microsoft is likely to use the cost difference to its advantage, so VMware needs to do something to even out the feature set of ESXi free edition to match Hyper-V R2. Potential customers may choose Hyper-V over ESXi because of Live Migration, as many see Live Migration/VMotion as a important function because it helps with load balancing and maintenance. Although VMware could easily add VMotion to ESXi free edition as it's a license change, it doesn't solve the dilemma of VMotion requiring vCenter Server to function.

Will VMware make ESXi more attractive at VMworld?
So what will VMware do, if anything, to counter the fact that Live Migration is free with Microsoft's virtualization product? The upcoming VMworld 2009 conference in San Francisco would be a perfect opportunity for VMware to make any announcements to detract from the Hyper-V R2 release and make VMware ESXi free edition more attractive.

Last year VMware wowed attendees by showing them some of the new features of vSphere and by introducing the Virtual Data Center OS concept and vCloud initiative. With no new major releases on the horizon, what will VMware do? Here are a few ideas I had:

  • More Linux/open source support – VMware teased everyone last year with a technology preview of vCenter Server 2.5 running as a Linux appliance, but VMware has been quiet about it since then. Since vSphere is already available it is doubtful VMware will release this anytime soon, but what about a vCenter Server 4.0 running as a Linux appliance? Additionally, support for an open source database would be nice instead of forcing users to choose between SQL Server and Oracle forvCenter Server.

  • VSphere Client – Customers have been asking for a Linux version of the vSphere Client for a long time and VMware hinted at VMworld last year that its engineers were working on something, but again, nothing became of it. This and a Linux version of vCenter Server are things that received the most applause when mentioned in a keynote last year. If developing a Linux client is too difficult, perhaps VMware should look into making the Web user interface more functional so it could also manage hosts instead of just virtual machines.

  • Clouds – The new vCloud initiative was first mentioned at VMworld last year but not much was given in the way of details. This year, VMware plans on providing much more information on clouds as evidenced by the 27 VMworld sessions that have the word cloud in the title. Expect VMware to really push cloud computing this year as it demonstrates how its products and solutions can be used in cloud environments.

  • VMsafe – VMware's new security application programming interface (API) was mentioned at VMworld last year and is finally available. Very little, however, has been mentioned about it and there is not much publically available information. Some vendors are starting to release products that use the VMsafe APIs and it would be nice if VMware would showcase these, as well as provide its customers with more information on how VMSafe works.

  • More free stuff - Will VMware give vCenter Server away for free or introduce a new free edition that has limited features but is able to support VMotion? VMware has a limited-feature free edition of ESXi, so why not do the same for vCenter Server? VMware could also include some additional features in the free ESXi edition, such as including the vCenter Server agent so the free edition of ESXi can be managed by vCenter Server.

  • I/O Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) – This upcoming feature will enable DRS to better manage and distribute workloads by also factoring in network and disk I/O utilization when making decisions on distributing VM workloads amongst hosts. Currently DRS only factors in CPU and memory usage when determining the optimum VM placement. By supporting all four resources, DRS can achieve much better resource distribution which will result in better performance as network and disk I/O bottlenecks can be avoided.

I look forward to seeing what awaits us at VMworld this year and hope we get a glimpse of VMware's upcoming product roadmap.

Eric Siebert is a 25-year IT veteran with experience in programming, networking, telecom and systems administration. He is a guru-status moderator on the VMware community VMTN forums and maintains, a VI3 information site.

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