VMware to make server product free

Company expected to give away product enabling multiple OSes to run on one server, CNET News.com has learned.

VMware, an EMC subsidiary whose software lets multiple operating systems run on the same computer, is expected to announce next week that it will begin giving away one of its key products for free, CNET News.com has learned.

The company sells three core products, VMware Workstation, GSX Server and ESX Server, but competition is on the horizon in a market VMware once had to itself. On Monday, however, the company is expected to announce it will give away GSX for free, sources familiar with the plan said.

GSX runs on a "host" Windows or Linux operating system and then lets "guest" operating systems run atop it in compartments called virtual machines. The higher-end ESX product, in contrast, needs no host and runs below the operating system layer.

VMware may gain two advantages from the move. First, because virtual machines can be moved from GSX to ESX, customers who try the former may choose to upgrade to the latter. Second, giving the software away for free could make VMware's technology more popular and cement the company's lead over emerging rivals.

Today, GSX costs $1,400 for dual-processor servers and $2,800 for more powerful machines. ESX, while more expensive, permits more sophisticated features such as VMotion, which lets one running operating system be moved from one server to another while it's still running.

VMware didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

VMware is an established power in the realm of virtualization, a technology that permits computing equipment to be more flexible and run more tasks efficiently. Its software lets different operating systems run in virtual machines; each virtual machine appears to be an entirely separate computer, but in fact each shares the same hardware with others.

Such technology has been available on high-end computers for years, but VMware brought it to the realm of mainstream computers using x86 processors such as Intel's Pentium and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. The move is timely: Virtual machines let more work be done on a single server, an efficiency move that helps ameliorate the computer industry's growing electrical power problem.

Now, though, VMware faces new challengers, most of them immature but also already available for free.

First in line is the open-source Xen effort that will become part of the two major commercial versions of Linux: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server. In addition, Microsoft is working on similar software it plans to add to its next server operating system, called "Longhorn Server." Others such as Virtual Iron and SWsoft's Virtuozzo have technology that overlaps.

Most of these virtualization software projects are getting a boost from new processor features. Intel Virtualization Technology--code-named Vanderpool and now emerging in server processors--accelerates some operations and makes it possible to run Windows on Xen without modifications to Windows that otherwise would be necessary.

AMD's rival technology, code-named Pacifica, is scheduled to arrive later this year in the company's "Rev F" Opteron models.

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