VMware has enjoyed a long run as king of x86 server virtualisation, and the pioneering vendor remains the one to beat when tallying enterprise market share. But its competitors, particularly Microsoft and Citrix Systems, are gaining ground as IT executives begin to view server virtualisation not only as a means to cut costs in the data centre but also as a baseline technology for enabling cloud computing. 

VMware introduced its first x86 server virtualisation products in 2001. It wasn't until a few years later that the first commercial versions of the open source Xen virtualisation hypervisor hit the market, and Microsoft's release of Hyper-V followed in 2008. 

With its generous head start, VMware started winning customers, particularly among large enterprises looking to save money and gain efficiencies by consolidating data center assets. As interest in the technology rose, so did VMware's marketshare. In early 2008, researchers estimated that at least 50% and as many as 80% of enterprise customers were using its hypervisor.

Despite the high numbers, the race to virtualisation is by no means over. Virtualisation deployments have been expanding over the past several years, but plenty of workloads remain to be virtualised. At the end of 2009, only 18% of enterprise data center workloads that could be virtualised had been virtualised, according to Gartner. The number is expected to grow to more than 50% by the close of 2012.

Vendors including Microsoft, Citrix (which acquired XenSource in 2007), Oracle (which acquired Virtual Iron in 2009), Parallels, Novell and others are gunning for new virtualised workloads, and they're using management capabilities, automation technologies and vendor partnerships to sweeten and differentiate their offerings.These tactics are timely.

As today's IT buyers mull virtualisation technologies, they're considering a lot more than just the hypervisor used to create virtual machines. IT teams need tools to manage virtual server technologies from x86 environments back to the mainframe, across multi-platform hypervisors and consistently alongside physical machines. They also need security and monitoring tools, and capabilities such as live migration to maintain business continuity.

Enterprises have learned they need to carefully track the configuration of virtual machines to ensure compliance with business policies and prevent virtual server sprawl – particularly as they get their IT infrastructures ready for cloud computing.

Virtualisation is a critical step in the journey to the private cloud, according to Matt Eastwood, group vice president of enterprise platforms at IDC. "Customers are quickly moving beyond the core hypervisor and focusing on mobility, self-provisioning, and metering and chargeback capabilities," Eastwood said in a statement. “As a result, IDC believes that automation tools increasingly represent the battleground in determining the winners and losers in a marketplace which is rapidly reshaping itself."

For its part, VMware has been beefing up its management and automation capabilities, most recently by acquiring IT management technologies from EMC's Ionix portfolio for about $200 million. It also is part of a three-way partnership with Cisco and EMC to develop a series of cloud-computing platforms, called Vblocks, that are based on servers and networking gear from Cisco, EMC's storage, and VMware's VSphere virtualisation software.

In its latest Magic Quadrant for x86 server virtualisation infrastructure, Gartner recognises VMware as the market leader. But it also acknowledges some challenges.

"VMware's challenge is to protect and grow its installed base and technology leadership as it expands into complementary markets that leverage virtualisation, such as cloud computing," Gartner writes in its report, released in late May.

Citrix, meanwhile, has emphasised its virtualisation management offerings – both for its own XenServer hypervisor and longtime partner Microsoft's Hyper-V platform – and made its hypervisor technology available for free to entice customers.

"Its bold move to make XenServer (including XenCenter and XenMotion) free has resulted in a large upswing of product activations. However, the vendor has not yet been able to monetise that with product maintenance agreements or its add-on Essentials management offering," Gartner writes about Citrix in its Magic Quadrant. "Citrix is also trying to find a comfortable complementary role with Microsoft's Hyper-V, adding extended management tools to Microsoft's offering (which might reduce its reliance on its own offering, XenServer)."

Microsoft, too, has been working to emphasise virtualisation management capabilities available in its Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager, and it has emphasised its multi-vendor approach to management. By making its hypervisor available for free, packaged with Windows Server 2008, Microsoft has steadily gained price-conscious users, particularly among midsise companies.

"Microsoft competes very well in midsize organisations that are just now beginning to virtualise," Gartner writes in its market evaluation. "Microsoft's biggest challenge is overcoming VMware's deep market penetration in all but smaller enterprises that have been slow to virtualise. In many ways, Microsoft has been left with the late technology adopters."

Pricing remains an important customer draw for Microsoft, Gartner says. "Microsoft's biggest trump card is that it does not need virtualisation to be a stand-alone business, so it will be able to maintain a price advantage on VMware."

So who's the winner? VMware's early lead has been tough for its competitors to overcome. But in the big picture, there are plenty of widespread virtualisation deployments still to be undertaken by midsize and large enterprises. As the key players compete for mindshare, enterprises get to enjoy the benefits of more mature offerings.

Image credt: by Laenulfean on Flickr