Virtualization: The Race To Give Away The Most Software

Simon Crosby previously said on my podcast that the hypervisor should be free and now we know he really means it, and more. (Check out Simon's most recent podcast appearance.) Just as Microsoft's Hyper-V Server is free, Citrix XenServer now too is free. This on the heels of Citrix's announcement they are collaborating with Intel to put a hypervisor on bare metal desktop machines, to better and more securely operate and deliver virtualized environments on the desktop. What we have here is a real live example of what we always talked about in business classes; give away the razor and sell razorblades. Except here the razorblades are provisioning, management, live migration, storage virtualization, virtualized image delivery and many other systems. Hypervisors are the OS equivalent of what Adobe Flash is to web pages - Give away a core software engine so you can sell the customer software that utilizes and manages the engine that lives on all these machines.

When virtualization really began taking off and looked to be more than just an interesting technology, I predicted that choosing a hypervisor (VMware, Xen, Microsoft, etc.) would be the first order choice, so important a choice you would select your virtualization hypervisor and then choose your preferred operating system. Now it's very obvious how bad that prediction was. Hypervisors are the commodity elements of virtualization, largely thanks to open source Xen. I say that from two standpoints. First, Microsoft was able to accelerate their entry of Hyper-V by basing its design on open source Xen software's design. Microsoft jumped immediately to the free hypervisor and server model as a way to make up some ground because of their late entry of Hyper-V into market. That also set the ground work for Microsoft and Xen's owner Citrix to collaborate and partner, as we saw in their announcement this week. Secondly, open source Xen has allowed Citrix to send prices of the hypervisor to the bottom, and extend that free software model into more of the feature set needed to create enterprise class virtualization infrastructure.

Now you might say ‘hey wait a minute', VMware's also given away free hypervisor software too, and you'd be right in saying that. Frankly, VMware pioneered the free software model by giving away highly functional and useful software, not just some teaser features that required you to buy in order to really use the product.

But VMware gave away free VMware Desktop and VMware Server software for a much different reason... to educate the market and reduce some of the natural adoption barriers for the new virtualization technology. Today the goal of offering free virtualization software is both to attract customers, i.e. I tried your free stuff now let me see what else you have, and to create the need (or the problem) that virtualization vendors' paid for management software solves. You remember all that  provisioning, management, live migration, storage virtualization, virtualized image delivery and management stuff, don't you? That and more is largely what's in the paid for version.

Citrix has upped the ante by increasing what's offered in the free software, features like live motion (live migration), centralized management and 64-bit software. The question is where does it stop? Are the virtualization vendors in an unending game of free software escalation? The answer is ‘maybe'. (I'm still gun shy from that last hypervisor prediction.) Ah, heck, I'm going for it... the answer is ‘yes'. The game doesn't stop until somebody flinches. In other words, we'll continue to see features we pay for today offered for free in the future at least until the point where there is a clear winner in the virtualization market. That winner will be declared as "running in over XX% of all data centers and computers in the world", where XX% is something north of 70% or there's a wide enough margin between the leader and all the followers. But you can argue (and I do) that even then, competitors will continue to up the free software ante at least to the point where everyone largely has their management and other virtualization software in place, or those competitors are gone and out of business.

And here's where Microsoft's strategy keeps them in the game. If I have servers running Microsoft Windows Server 2008, I have virtualization available at the click of the button. They certainly won't be left out of the game. But the real question is will the combination of System Center's Virtual Machine Manager and Hyper-V's interoperability with Citrix's management products help them both further encroach into VMware's territory in the data center. Virtualization's free software race to the bottom is really about a race to the top - getting customers to commit to that vendor's virtualization management infrastructure. Microsoft's and Citrix's race together against VMware could result in them one day battling it out against each other at the top. 

Like this? Here are some of Mitchell's recent posts.

Mitchell's Book Recommendations: Also visit Mitchell's other blogs and podcasts:

Visit Microsoft Subnet for more news, blogs, opinion from around the Web. Sign up for the bi-weekly Microsoft newsletter. (Click on News/Microsoft News Alert.)

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in