Microsoft ups gears on Virtual Server upgrade

Microsoft Wednesday changed the upcoming service pack for Virtual Server 2005 into an entirely new product release that will now carry a licensing fee for some, but the company reaffirmed that the software would still ship by the end of the year.

At Intel's Developer Forum, Microsoft said what was once called Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 is now being renamed Virtual Server 2005 R2. Virtual server technology lets multiple operating systems, called guests, run on one physical machine with a single host operating system. Virtual Server 2005 runs Windows Server 2003 as its host operating system.

Microsoft uses the R2 nomenclature to signify an interim product upgrade, which means that users without Software Assurance support contracts will not be getting the Virtual Server upgrade for free. The same is true for the upcoming R2 version of Windows Server 2003.

While Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 would have been made available at no cost via download, users without service contracts will now have to buy a entirely new license for R2. Microsoft did not say what the cost would be for that license.

Microsoft officials said they considered the free vs. cost issue and found that the majority of Virtual Server 2005 customers were on support.

"We agonised over that question," says Zane Adam, director of marketing for the Windows server division. "Since this product sells in the enterprise segment and has only been out since October the potential of a having a large customer base looking for service pack 1 is not really existent. If this was a two- or three-year cycle we would have suffered a bit more."

Adam confirmed that the feature set for this next release of Virtual Server has not changed since service pack 1 was introduced in April, but said Microsoft strengthened its long-term commitment to invest in and continue developing Virtual Server even though basic virtualisation technology will be added into the Longhorn server operating system.

In April, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, "Virtualisation is an area of intense interest and activity for us. Driving virtualisation is a key technology to facilitate better compatibility and lower total cost of ownership." He called virtualisation a major area of investment for Microsoft.

Microsoft officials said the next full version of Virtual Server after the R2 release would go into beta in the first half of next year and ship by the end of 2006.

The company said that the 2006 version would provide a key transition point to the next generation of virtualisation technology from Microsoft, which will see a technology called "hypervisor" built directly into the Longhorn server.

The technology will be delivered after Longhorn ships, which is slated for 2007, and will likely be delivered as an add-on or through an interim release available for free for licensed customers.

Hypervisor is an optimised operating system, or microkernel, built into the virtualisation platform designed to provide better performance and scalability.

Experts say hypervisor is key for virtualisation because it shields the host operating system from security attacks. Microsoft's competitors in the virtualisation market including VMware and SW-Soft both support hypervisor.

At the Intel conference, Microsoft said its hypervisor technology will support the hardware virtualisation capabilities of Intel's VT and AMD's Pacifica chipsets.

Critics say hypervisor support will enable Microsoft to offer a more capable and secure virtualisation platform for corporate users. Today, many users deploy Virtual Server 2005 as a test and development environment.

For now, however, Virtual Server 2005 R2 will include support for non-Windows virtual machines including Linux. With the first version of Virtual Server, released late last year, Microsoft did not support any platform outside of Windows even thought those operating systems could be run as guest operating systems.

Virtual Server 2005 R2 also will include support for x64 editions of Windows Server 2003 as a host operating system, clustering technology and support for guest operating system installation via a network.

Microsoft is already licensing, royalty-free, its Virtual Hard Disk (.vhd) file format in an effort to jumpstart industry acceptance of its virtualisation technology.

In April, the company released a Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) management pack for Virtual Server.

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