Microsoft's Virtualization Jihad

You would have thought that Microsoft had its hands full last week with its coming out parties for two major future platforms, Windows Phone and Internet Explorer 9, last week at the MIX'10 conference in Las Vegas. But late in the week, the software giant surprised me with a sweeping set of announcements concerning almost all of its virtualization technologies.

There's a lot going on here. And that's not surprising when you step back and examine what Microsoft is doing in this space. This strategy was laid out over two years ago, when the software giant announced an initiative to expand the role of virtualization in businesses around the world. At the time, Microsoft estimated that less than 5 percent of its corporate customers were using virtualization technology of any kind because of cost and complexity. And say what you will about the company, if there's one thing Microsoft can often bring to the table over time, its lower costs and simplicity.

Looked at from a high level, Microsoft's plans for virtualization included a suite of client and server solutions, an integrated management experience, and broad customer adoption of these technologies. In 2008, this was pretty forward leaning. The company had yet to ship Windows Server 2008, with its integrated hypervisor, and many of its other virtualization tools were at various stages of completion and functionality.


Today, Microsoft's virtualization product portfolio is vast and full-featured. So much so, in fact, that it's difficult even examining these solutions as freestanding products. Really, what Microsoft is doing is making virtualization a core part of its overall software stack. It's not so much a tacked on feature as it is central to its product strategy.

With that in mind, this week's announcements encompass a wide range of products and services. On the desktop, Microsoft removed the hardware virtualization requirement that previously made its Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode perks for Windows 7 difficult for customers to adopt, especially for those on Intel-based hardware. Now, these solutions will utilize hardware virtualization if it's present on the PC, speeding performance, but they will also work otherwise. It should have been this way all along, frankly, but at least they've fixed it.

In tandem with partner Citrix, Microsoft has also launched the virtualization version of the "Cash for Clunkers" program via the Rescue for VMware VDI promotion. It's essentially a way for VMWare customers to trade in their VMWare View licenses (up to 500) for Microsoft VDI Standard Suite and Citrix XenDesktop VDI Edition licenses at no cost.

For Software Assurance customers, virtual desktop access rights are now a benefit of the subscription service (or will be, as of July 1, 2010). That means that SA customers will no longer need to buy a separate license to access Windows in a VDI environment.

Microsoft also confirmed that Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2008 R2 will include two important updates related to virtualization. This includes the long-awaited support for Dynamic Memory--for on-the-fly virtual machine memory changes--and RemoteFX, which adds 3D and multimedia capabilities in virtual environments. (This service pack also applies to Windows 7, but on that system, will only deliver patch aggregation and minor updates, including client-side support for RemoteFX.) Microsoft hasn't yet set a timeline for SP1, but I'm told it will drop in Q4 2010. Also, Citrix has its own RemoteFX version, HDX RichGraphics, for those customers that are using the Citrix stack.

And don't forget Microsoft's recent announcements about its MDOP (Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack ) 2010 release. This SA offer will include two interesting virtualizations solutions. Application Virtualization (App-V) 4.6, which is now available, allows enterprises to centrally manage deliver virtualized applications to user desktops, while Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) SP1 (currently in release candidate with a final release due in April) provides an entire virtualized environment with bundled apps that can be run side-by-side with native applications on the host PCs. (It's essentially a managed version of Windows XP Mode.) Both of these products now include pervasive support for Windows 7 and Office 2010, including 64-bit versions of each.

When you combine these initiatives with Microsoft's virtualization management and infrastructure capabilities--we haven't even touched on such things as Remote Desktop Services (formerly Terminal Services) or System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), for example--a more complete picture emerges. Virtualization has moved quickly from being a future possibility to being something that is simply endemic and central to business. And that's as true for Microsoft's customers as it is for the software giant itself.

An edited version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul