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The VMware Go online and freebie virtual machine builder that VMware created to spur adoption of its ESXi embedded and free server hypervisor is getting some tweaks that will make it more appealing to small and medium businesses that might otherwise go with Microsoft's freebie Hyper-V.

VMware Go was announced last August at the VMworld trade show and is the result of a collaboration between VMware and Shavlik Technologies, a VMware partner that sells online patch and configuration management tools who is actually hosting the Go tool.

The tool was in beta until early 2010, and according to Manoj Jayadevan, director of emerging business and products at VMware, the Go service now has 100,000 users. Jayadevan says that at current rates, about 10,000 users a week sign up to get a freebie ESXi hypervisor (which has the management console and many of the neat features people pay VMware for), and that about 2,000 of them use the Go service to create and manage their VMs.

While this is all well and good, VMware has a vast installed base of customers using its hosted hypervisors, various releases of the ancient GSX Server, and VMware Server 1.0 and 2.0. These latter hosted hypervisors, unlike GSX Server, were distributed freely to try to compete against open source Xen hypervisors and to blunt a Microsoft Hyper-V attack before it got marketing steam behind it on the x64 platform. While VMware cannot easily make the Go service compatible with all those old hosted hypervisors because of file-format and other issues, according to Jayadevan, the company does want to get customers who deployed the most current VM Server, the 2.0 product, on the path to the full ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor and the commercial-grade vSphere 4.0 stack.

And so the VMware Go service has been tweaked so it can now import VM Server 2.0 guests and deploy them on ESXi 4.0 hypervisors. This is particularly significant because there are about three times as many downloads for VMware Server 2.0 than for ESXi 4.0 because the hosted product supports more ancient hardware than the more current bare-metal embedded hypervisor.

But it would probably had been better if VMware just allowed Go to manage VMware Server 2.0 virtual machines directly, given that VMware Server 2.0 runs on older iron and ESXi doesn't (although Jayadevan says it is getting better). If you have 30,000 users a week signing up to use a free product, as VMware does with its hosted hypervisor, but don't have a free management tool to help them actually use it, how good is the experience going to be and how likely are they going to move up the stack to ESXi and then to the for-fee vSphere products?

VMware has the right idea, but needs to go a few steps further. It would also be helpful to have a V2V conversion tool that takes old GSX Server and VMware Server 1.0 images and converts them to VMware Server 2.0 format, which can then be sucked into the Go service and exported as ESXi images.

The VMware Go service also now has something called collective intelligence. As users employ the Go service, VMware keeps track of some rudimentary data — without any personal information gleaned from users — about how they configure their VMs, what iron they run it on, and so forth. Using this data, the Go management interface, which has been updated to be more task oriented, has a dashboard that tells you what other people are doing in the Go base as a kind of best-practices indicator.

So, for example, if you want to install the Zimbra email and collaboration server on ESXi, the dashboard might show you what operating systems people deploy, what ESXi configurations they use, how many VMs they have per physical server, and what types and brands of servers are popular. As you drill down into the VM creation process, the dashboard is contextual and feeds you the best relevant information it can find from its culled statistics.

VMware Go is free, and so is ESXi 4.0. If you want to buy a support contract for ESXi, you can shell out $495 or pay $299 per incident that you call in. But Jayadevan says that most companies buy the vSphere Essentials bundle, which is a license for three physical servers including the full ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor and a year of maintenance that lists for $995 (including update subscriptions but not tech support); this bundle is currently selling under a promotion for $500. A lot of ESXi shops who move into vSphere pick up vSphere Essentials Plus, which adds in high-availability and disaster-recovery features, and which costs $2,995 for three physical servers; again, you get updates for the vSphere code, but not tech support for that price. ®

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