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VMware throws next punch in virtualisation battle

Opens up file format

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Comment VMware has announced it is making its virtual machine file format freely available, with no license or royalties.

Despite the company's claim that "it is committed to supporting any other open virtual machine disk formats broadly adopted by customers and working toward converging on open standards in this area", this announcement is clearly motivated by the desire to ensure that VMware's virtualisation technologies are at the hub of a healthy ecosystem of third parties offering a range of value-added capabilities, such as backup/recovery, provisioning, performance optimistation, and so forth.

To emphasise the point, VMware had Akimbi Systems, Altiris, BMC Software, PlateSpin, rPath, Surgient, Symantec and Trend Micro on hand to explain how they intend to use the file format. VMware first made its intentions clear in this regard with the announcement of the VMware Virtual Infrastructure SDK in June 2004.

VMware is not alone. At the Microsoft Management Summit in April last year, Steve Ballmer announced royalty-free licensing of Microsoft's equivalent Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format. At the time of writing, Microsoft has signed up 45 licensees, including XenSource, which is leading the open source community behind the Xen hypervisor technology, as well as offering a range of value-added solutions based on Xen.

Yesterday, Microsoft also announced that Virtual Server 2005 R2 is now available as a no-charge download. This announcement, like VMware's release of the free VMware Player (in December 2005) and VMware Server (in February this year), is indicative that the core virtualisation engine is becoming a commodity - as, of course, is Microsoft's intention to include a hypervisor in the Windows operating system.

It is this commoditisation that is at the heart of these moves by VMware and Microsoft. The virtualisation battle is not going to be won on the basis of who is armed with the best engine, particularly in the face of open source alternatives such as Xen, which the likes of RedHat and Novell are building into their Linux distributions. The spoils will go to the vendor whose engine can be harnessed most effectively. VMware clearly recognises this and is investing heavily in technologies such as VirtualCenter. It's not lost on Microsoft either, but it still has some way to go to catch up.

But both vendors clearly recognise, as the opening up of their respective file formats indicates, that they can't do it alone. In particular, they need to ensure that the leading management players - BMC, CA, HP and IBM - are on board, since that's who many of their target customers will be turning to for a lead. VMware has done an excellent job of cultivating partnerships with these players but none of them can afford to ignore Microsoft.

These moves are good news for enterprises. Not only does it increase competition and, as a result, choice: it also drives innovation in the management areas required to maximise the potential benefits of virtualisation technology. In the absence of industry-wide open standards, enterprises will rely on these management solutions to abstract the underlying virtualisation engine.

Copyright © 2006 Macehiter Ward-Dutton

This article was originally published at IT-Analysis.com.

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