Peek inside most enterprise data centres today, and you'll probably find at least one or two x86 boxes running VMware's server virtualisation software. Odds are good the technology got there as part of an effort to consolidate an upward-spiralling number of industry-standard servers.

Now, watch the number of virtual servers in production quickly escalate. Conditions are perfect: enterprise IT executives are increasingly comfortable with the technology at a time when VMware is moving quickly beyond its roots in basic slicing and dicing. It is broadening its infrastructure focus and enticing companies with the prospect of true utility computing.

"Consolidation is still important. It's an easy ROI story to tell, and it will continue to be a conversation-starter for VMware," says Scott Donahue, vice president at Tier 1 Research. "But once it's in there, it will be demonstrating its value around other things like disaster recovery and fault tolerance and performance and shifting applications — all the things you expect to get out of a dynamic computing environment."

VMware wants to provide not just tools for carving up physical systems, but also an automated framework that promises the most efficient use of virtualised resources. Toward that end, it has opened its code so that partners, such as network interface card and applications vendors, can integrate better with its virtualisation software. It's also pushing for virtualisation standards. Ultimately, VMware wants to turn x86 virtualisation into the foundation for the New Data Centre.

Not surprisingly, this push comes as VMware, which has dominated the market it created in 2001, faces a growing cadre of competitors. Among them are Microsoft and smaller companies, such as Virtual Iron and XenSource, that make use of Xen open source virtualisation technology.

Industry observers say the increasing competition should help spur VMware to improve its technology and re-evaluate its pricing, which today seems to be the biggest -- and only -- sticking point for many users. VMware is starting to address the issue, selling its ESX Server and related management tools in tiered pricing, which starts at $1,000 per two CPUs and increases according to the features included. Previously, pricing for ESX Server alone started at about $3,800 per two CPUs.

"Yes, VMware is the leader right now, but like any other new technology provider, it's important to watch what the company is doing and where it's headed to make sure it continues to stay ahead of the competition," says Barry Naber, assistant director for enterprise IT operations at US-based International Truck and Engine. The manufacturer runs about 180 VMware virtual machines on fewer than a dozen servers across four data centres. "Right now, I'm pretty committed to VMware, and I think it's headed in the right direction," he says.

Infrastructure 3

Infrastructure 3, introduced in June, illustrates the course VMware has chosen. The software package includes updated versions of ESX Server and VirtualCentre management tools and VMotion technology for running virtual machines among physical servers. The Infrastructure 3 package includes new technologies aimed at letting users pool compute resources and allocate them to workloads automatically, depending on application demands.

Infrastructure 3 is the first step in VMware's efforts to provide enhanced services on top of an increasingly reliable virtual foundation. Over time the company has shifted its focus from providing an individual hypervisor that lets multiple operating systems run on a single physical system, to managing a collection of virtual machines running on those servers, to talking now about data centre-wide virtualisation and mapping applications dynamically to those resources, says Raghu Raghuram, VMware's vice president of platform products. "No customers are ever thinking about a single server anymore. They're thinking about the aggregation of servers, storage and networking," he says.

VMware addresses that perspective by working with storage vendors to streamline data access in virtual environments, and with networking companies to improve virtual server I/O. Concurrently, it will continue to enhance its underlying server-partitioning technology to take advantage of native virtualisation support being built into processors from AMD and Intel.

Chip-level support will result in better performance and more capabilities for ESX Server, such as 64-bit processing, VMware executives say. Today server virtualisation technology, such as VMware's, relies on fancy footwork to enable x86 systems, which weren't designed for virtualisation, to support multiple operating systems and workloads. Often, finessing this support can strain performance.

VMware is moving smartly, says Charles King, principal analyst at research firm Pund-IT. "It's very intriguing. VMware is taking its expertise in server virtualisation and extending it out across the IT infrastructure. It's a very ambitious plan," he says, adding that in stepping outside its traditional comfort zone, VMware could face challenges and pitfalls ahead.

Enterprise IT executives agree VMware is making some wise moves. They look to VMware's transition as important to the evolution of the virtualisation market as a whole.

"The issue is that, once you virtualise, you solve some problems, but create others, such as how to deal with managing systems in a different way," says Eric Beasley, a systems engineer at a large healthcare organisation evaluating VMware's technology. "It's important that VMware continues to innovate as far as how it helps you manage and manipulate your virtual infrastructure."

This is part one of a two-part article. Part two will be published tomorrow.