Microsoft put out the release candidate of the Hyper-V hypervisor today, pushing the product through development in record pace. To me, that's a clear indicator of how seriously the company takes the threat of someone else's software getting between its operating environments and the underlying hardware.
So far, Microsoft has been trying to break into the virtualization game with its Virtual Server, which runs inside Windows Server 2003. That puts it at a distinct disadvantage against VMware, which lies directly on bare metal hardware. Not only does this offer substantial performance and scalability advantages, it actually serves to diminish the importance of the operating system in the IT pecking order by allowing users to provision whatever OS suits the task(s) at hand.
Essentially, Hyper-V is Microsoft's way of saying "No sir, if anyone is going to dominate the OS, it will be us."
Of course, VMware is the dominant virtualization player at the moment, but the market is still young enough to afford ample opportunity for Microsoft to move in. A couple of key strategic moves should give Hyper-V a boost. First, the release gives users a chance to play with it before the final product is available later this year, part and parcel of the Windows Server 2008 bundle. Microsoft has also expanded the list of guest OS support to include SuSE Linux Enteprise Server 10, Windows Server 2003 SP2, Vista SP1 and XP SP3, which isn't even out yet. And probably most important, the company is planning a hardware embedded version, allowing OEMs to build it directly into future server platforms.
The Hyper-V is also gaining crucial third-party support, bringing in tools for management and storage that IT will increasingly turn to as virtualization gains ground in the enterprise. Austin, Texas,' Surgient recently unveiled Hyper-V support for its Lab Management Platform that manages application lifecycles in the virtual world, while NetApp has released a suite of storage and management systems for Hyper-V, along with Server and SQL '08.
Don't expect VMware to sit still, however. The company has a long list of vendor support and has launched a low-key campaign to draw attention to the flaws in not only Hyper-V but the Citrix Xen products as well. This blog from VMware's Eric Horschman spells out his reasoning as to why even freely bundled virtualization platforms can still end up costing more for each virtual machine.
If virtualization resided in the PC rather than the server, it would be pretty much Microsoft's for the taking. But since it represents such a radically new enterprise infrastructure, the virtualization market is wide open at this point, and that makes it both interesting to watch and beneficial to users.