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VMware upgrades data center software, ambitions

Beta tests begin on ESX Server 3 and VirtualCenter 2, two products aiming to advance the virtualization trend.

With coming releases of VMware's core products, the company is accelerating its move from nuts-and-bolts server management software to products that run large tracts of a data center.

At its VMworld conference on Monday, the EMC subsidiary announced this grander ambition and the beta testing of supporting two products: ESX Server 3, software that lets a single server run multiple operating systems, and VirtualCenter 2, control software that governs the behavior of servers running ESX Server.

Both products will begin shipping in the first quarter of 2006, when prices also will be announced, VMware said. Today, ESX Server 2.5 customers pay $3,750 for each dual-processor server and a total of $5,000 to include VirtualCenter.

VMware is at the center of a modernization trend, called virtualization, to make computers more flexible. Virtualization unlocks the tight link between hardware and software, making it easier to move programs from one computer to another, change underlying hardware configurations without interfering with software, and let different software share the same hardware foundation more efficiently.

VMware led the industry in building "virtual machine" software for computers using x86 processors such as Intel's Pentium and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. The software first was used on workstations for tasks such as running Windows and Linux on the same machine or to provide a safe place to develop software while it is still crash-prone. Now the company's more significant business is in running multiple jobs on the same server.

But the complicated heart of VMware's software is getting easier to reproduce as Intel and AMD begin building virtualization support directly into their processors. At the same time, VMware is getting new competition: Microsoft's Virtual Server and Virtual PC products, and an open-source project called Xen is being built into versions of Linux from Red Hat and Novell. On Monday, rival Virtual Iron announced it hired a former VMware sales executive, Evan Eckstein, as its vice president of sales.

VMware's rivals also are headed toward management tools, but VMware has the advantage of a large customer base. If all goes according to plan, those customers will spend money for the ESX Server and VirtualCenter upgrades next year.

Combined, ESX Server 3 and VirtualCenter 2 will provide two new options, VMware said. First is Distributed Availability Services, in which the control software detects failed virtual machines and automatically restarts them. Second is Distributed Resource Scheduling, in which the control software juggles a workload across a group of servers, so administrators can run servers at an 80 percent utilization rate.

Individually, the products also bring some advances. VirtualCenter 2 will manage hundreds of servers and thousands of virtual machines. And as expected, the new ESX will permit use of the computing power of four-processor servers, a feature called four-way Virtual SMP (symmetric multiprocessing).

Today's ESX permits only two-processor virtual SMP, still a step ahead of Microsoft's one-processor support. However, Xen is building multiprocessor support already. And four-way SMP is arriving late: Last year, VMware said it would be available in 2005.

Also, ESX Server 3 will be able support as much as 16GB of memory per virtual machine, compared with the current ESX, which supports just 3.6GB.