The battle lines for 2008's virtualisation wars have now been drawn. Events over the last few weeks have combined to show us the weapons that the major virtualisation vendors are likely to be using over the next 12 months - with the major protagonists being VMware, Microsoft, Citrix - and now Oracle. So here's the current state of play.

Microsoft crashes in

Microsoft's recent announcement of Hyper-V - once codenamed Viridian - has officially set the cat among the pigeons. Following a painful development process that suffered from several delays, we're now told that Hyper-V is on track for delivery six months after Windows Server 2008 ships, in Standard, Enterprise, DataCenter, Web Server versions. That means next August at the latest.

Microsoft won't be gouging for its hypervisor technology. The price of WinServ08 will be barely more than that of its predecessor, Windows Server 2003, said Microsoft, and the cost of adding Hyper-V will be pretty small. Microsoft looks set to charge just US$28 for the hypervisor technology - WinServ08 will cost $971 for a five-client licence, non-hypervised version and just $28 more with Hyper-V. The differential remains the same as you add client licences, and it doesn't matter from a price point of view how many CPUs you run it on.

There was little else Microsoft could do, given that VMware has such an overwhelming share of the market, and that it provides a virtualisation product - VMware Server - for free.

We don't have a huge amount of detail about Hyper-V. It's directly comparable to VMware's ESX Server, so it offers hardware virtualisation - this is the fully leaded technology that allows a host to support any guest operating system.

Those offering para-virtualisation and OS-level virtualisation argue that there's a higher performance penalty to pay for hardware virtualisation, but the speed hit is lessening as processor designers build in increasing levels of support for the technology, and as hardware performance generally improves. The penalty is tangible but the benefits of flexibility are largely neutralising that argument, if VMware's continued grip on the virtualisation market is any indication of enterprise purchasing preferences.

And Microsoft is displaying its new, more open approach with the launch of Hyper-V too, insisting that it runs Linux very well. At the launch, server product VP Andrew Lees said: "We have very tight integration of running Linux on Windows. It [Linux] runs incredibly well." The rationale, said Less, was that if virtual Linux runs well on Windows, it will ultimately make more people choose Windows Server.

There are a couple of minor issues raised in the product's community technology preview release notes, namely that it won't load on a dynamic disk, and that performance is likely to be poor on a CPU with hyperthreading enabled. There remain a number of networking and storage issues too but you could expect these to be resolved by the time of the product's release.

However, it's clear that Microsoft believes that the product's differentiation will need to be more visible than that. Most observers expect the hypervisor to become close to ubiquitous and very cheap if not free over the short to medium term. This explains why VMware continues to keep its prices high for as long as it can - and why its recent VMworld love-in, in September in San Francisco, saw a huge focus on what VMware called datacentre orchestration.

In other words, the software that manages virtual machines en masse. It's all part of the general move towards a datacentre-wide operating system, as evidenced by VMware's announcement on the first day of VMworld of the purchase of Dunes Technologies, which it described as "a company that provides IT process orchestration software for virtual environments." VMware product VP Raghu Raghuram said in the announcement: "Dunes has developed a powerful orchestration platform that will allow us to automate the entire virtual machine lifecycle from requisition to de-commissioning."

As we noted at the time of Microsoft's announcement, Microsoft said that one it's going to try to beat VMware is by providing management tools that allow, for example, an administrator to quickly deploy another virtual server if one is backlogged with tasks. Its virtualisation tools will also allow a view into how the OSes and applications are performing and allow modifications, said Lees. More details on that as we get them.

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