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Developer options for virtualization

Developers increasingly use virtual machines (VMs) to assist designing, developing, testing and demonstrating programs. Microsoft joined the chase with its VM for Vista, but it is playing catch-up to first-mover VMWare.

Microsoft has recently agreed to collaborate with Novell on virtualization products that promote the interoperability and compatibility of Windows and Linux in virtualization environments.

The company has also announced that its Virtual Machine (VM) for Vista, Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, will be available as a free offering for Windows Vista. Developers, through their MSDN subscriptions, may use those programs within a virtual machine to assist them in designing, developing, testing and demonstrating their programs.

For developers juggling multiple development projects and environments, such virtualization technology is increasingly useful. But there are alternatives beyond the Microsoft brand. Key among competitors in this space has been VMware.

While free products sometimes spell the death knell for competitors, many in the industry believe that other factors will continue to support the use of alternatives, which they say can be more efficient and cost effective over the development lifecycle.

The competition does not believe that Microsoft's free virtual machine offerings will necessarily steal its thunder.

"One of the things customers benefit from is the ability to, as a first-class citizen with no ulterior motives, have access to a technology that treats all of the development environments they support," said James Phillips, senior director of Virtual Software Lifecycle Automation Solutions at VMware. "Any development environment is going to be heterogeneous. Ensuring you have that heterogonous support is a critical differentiator."

Phillips noted that the VMware is also a more mature technology, and is currently on its fifth generation of development with VMware Workstation 5.5. "That robustness and maturing of the underlying technology sets us apart. Now we have the only solution with Workstation that can run on a laptop," he explaind. "The objective is to be transparent to the application layer. Customers get all of the benefits of faster software development cycles and better tests because they can test more quickly and, in a centralized lab, can provide resources to outsourcers or staff application providers."

Timothy Happychuck, regional IT director at Sun Media Group in Canada has experimented with VM technology for development from all of the major vendors. He said VMware has reduced the cost of delivering service architecture considerably. He noted, "We do a lot of in-house development on the MS architecture, and the cost differential between the VMware approach and the built in product server is astonishing."

The single biggest problem Sun has seen with other products is the overhead that the underlying OS takes from the virtualization products. With VMware solutions he is seeing a 'tax' of about 10%, compared to 15 to 20% for the products he has seen from Microsoft.

Encapsulate it all

The single biggest savings on the development side, is allowing a developer to encapsulate an entire enterprise system -- complete with a database server, Web servers and application servers -- within a file that can be zipped up and worked on by a developer on a laptop at home.

Happychuck noted, "You are literally running around with the equivalent of the enterprise system and you can break things, and then in a couple of mouse clicks, the whole system comes up like nothing happened. With Microsoft, the underlying server architecture has not been designed or optimized for doing this kind of work."

Happychuck's experiments with Longhorn have shown it to be a little more efficient, and he said, "It would be [unfair] to do an apples-to-apples comparison today."

Virtualization for the masses

Zane Adam, director of product marketing in the Windows Server Division at Microsoft said they decided to make some of their virtualization technology available at no charge "so IT groups will have more time to devote to solutions that increase business value.

"Toward that end, we want to make virtualization more broadly accessible and affordable so our customers can realize benefits in areas like server consolidation, disaster recovery, application re-hosting, and software test and development," said Adam.

"Our customers will be able to run an unlimited number of virtual operating systems on one physical server running Windows Server "Longhorn" Datacenter Edition. Like others, he points to a possible tend toward a commoditization of virtualization.

In the long run, Microsoft's free VM offerings might even be good for competitors like VMware. VMWare's Philips noted, "If anyone is delivering virtualization it is good for us. We have superior technology and however customer get introduced, we thing they will end up on VMware given its advantages and benefits. We think that increases our ability to penetrate the market over time."

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