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Microsoft hastens virtualization support

The software colossus is working to bring technologies in the hot area to market sooner than some expect.

BOSTON--Microsoft, faced with virtualization competition and customer demands, is working to bring some technologies to market sooner than it earlier had said.

Virtualization, which today generally refers to the ability to run multiple operating systems simultaneously to make a computer more efficient, is a hot area and one where Microsoft lags rivals. Even as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices add virtualization hardware support to make the technology mainstream, market leader VMware is exerting price pressure on Microsoft while the Xen project is giving rival Linux a major lead over Windows.

But Mike Neil, product unit manager for Microsoft's virtualization technologies, is working to keep his company as responsive as possible. Already the company this week announced that its Virtual Server product would be offered for free, matching the price of the comparable and more popular VMware Server. And in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here, Neil outlined several other plans.

For one thing, Microsoft could make pricing changes to accommodate customers who aren't happy counting how many copies of Windows are running on each server. Although the Enterprise Edition license for Windows Server 2003 permits as many as four instances of Windows to run on one computer, part of the promise of virtualization is for dynamic computing systems where new virtual machines are created, cloned, paused or deleted rapidly, and it's a burden keeping track of exactly how many copies of what software are running in such fluid environments.

Microsoft said that in the sequel to Windows Server 2003, code-named Longhorn Server and due in 2007, it will permit unlimited Windows virtual machines to be used on the same hardware for customers who buy the top-end Datacenter Edition of the operating system. But Neil said Tuesday that Microsoft is considering making that change to the current OS.

"For customers who go whole hog on virtualization and don't want to worry about counting--and very few of those exist today--we want to be reactive to that," Neil said.

But computer makers who have different price structures must be coaxed aboard, he added. "The challenge is we have OEM (original equipment manufacturer) agreements with partners. We have to make them happy with the situation," he said.

Another change that could come sooner than Microsoft said in the past is the arrival schedule of Windows Hypervisor, software code-named Viridian that runs beneath the operating system and manages resources for multiple virtual machines. Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux plan to make virtualization a standard feature this year using the Xen hypervisor, but Viridian isn't expected to debut until after Longhorn Server.

In the past, Microsoft executives have said Viridian likely won't arrive with the initial version of Longhorn, adding that Microsoft makes significant service pack updates to its operating systems roughly every 18 to 24 months after major releases. The implication was that Viridian would be likely to arrive in 2009--possibly three years after the open-source Xen made its mainstream debut.

But Neil winces at the 2009 date and hopes 2008 or even 2007 is in the cards because Viridian will slip in with no disturbances. When a software or hardware company qualifies its products for Longhorn Server, the software will be qualified to run either on Windows on bare metal or Windows on a hypervisor, he said.

"Longhorn Server will be virtualization-ready," Neil said. "We're making sure Longhorn Server, as it ships, has all the changes we need for the virtual environment. We won't have to change the kernel or make dramatic changes to the environment."

Full Viridian scheduling details will come at a May conference for hardware engineers involved with Windows when Microsoft will "set ourselves in stone," he said.

Of course, meeting a schedule is another matter, and Microsoft has had an unflattering track record of late. In recent weeks Microsoft delayed Windows Vista and Office 2007, while the next version of its Virtual Server product was planned for 2006 but is now expected in 2007.