In late February, Microsoft acquired technology that could significantly change the way companies acquire server hardware and deploy Windows-based operating systems on the client and the server. For Microsoft, the acquisition of Connectix’ virtual machine (VM) technology signals a major change in its attitude toward the virtualization of its operating systems. For the major vendor of the technology, VMware, it may mean that its ability to survive will depend on the alliances that it can forge over the next six to nine months. If you’re using either Microsoft or VMware technology, it’s worth your time to explore the impact of the Connectix acquisition.

The Microsoft love/hate VM relationship
Before the acquisition, Microsoft employees would either tell you that VM technology was fantastic or a waste of time—depending on the group to which you posed the question. To some, it was a great way to use the extra cycles and machine resources sitting idle in the data center and to consume them with Microsoft processes. To others, it was yet another way for companies to “steal” Microsoft software.

Many companies don’t realize that Microsoft requires a license for every copy of Windows running, whether on a physical or virtual machine. Some groups have embraced VMware technology, even sending out advance demonstrations to the Microsoft field using the technology. Others have refused to use any virtual machine technology because they didn’t want to add the platform to their testing scenarios, regardless of the customer value driven by the technology.

The VM value proposition
For the past few years, two major vendors have been providing VM technology for microprocessors: VMware and Connectix. VMware has built its business by providing VM technology that works cross-platform between Windows and Linux operating systems. It has workstation products for both Windows and Linux that allow one to run versions of the other within one or more virtual machines. It also has server platforms available for both Linux (ESX) and Windows 2000 Server (GSX).

Connectix originally developed its technology to allow Macintosh users to run a complete Windows VM and all of the applications developed for it. It moved its technology to Windows and was in the midst of releasing a version designed for Windows Servers when Microsoft announced the purchase. Connectix also contracted with Microsoft to produce the Windows CE 4.1 hardware emulators that run on Windows desktops, giving it an “inside look” at the engineering necessary to perform hardware emulation on a Windows platform.

Uses for VM technology
The acquisition of Connectix and its integration into the core Microsoft OS platform will give corporations many more options for configuring and managing hardware and applications. Some of these include:

Development platform
Using the client or server capability, companies can configure their development environments to allow software engineers to develop and test multitier applications and security scenarios on a single box. For example, one of my former companies used a virtual machine environment to provide the beta two version of the Microsoft .NET Development environment to over 500 developers nationwide by hosting the development environment on shared virtual machines in a data center. I’ve worked with other companies that put their standard desktop on developer desks and then had them run all of their development platforms on virtual machines that could easily be backed up, rebuilt, copied, or moved to faster machines if needed.

Training environment
One of the biggest complaints about technical training is that companies are unable to train on the same environment that they use for their own development and production. Using VM technology, you can create a complex, multiserver environment for training and allow it to run on individual machines or a shared server. Companies like Volant Training provide courseware designed to take advantage of a VM environment.

Application migration
One of the key drivers for Microsoft was to give corporations the ability to keep running their legacy Windows NT 4.0 applications while moving to new platforms like Windows 2003 Server. By including the VM technology as an add-on to Windows 2003 Server, a company can realize cost efficiencies by consolidating multiple Windows NT 4.0 servers and their applications onto a single Windows 2003 Server box.

Server consolidation
Even if you’re not running legacy Microsoft operating systems, the Connectix technology has some huge benefits for the data center and remote offices. For example, suppose you want to run a copy of ISA Server, Exchange 2000, and Windows 2003 as a Primary Domain Controller at each of your 100 remote locations. Without this technology, you would need to buy and support three machines for each location, even though their utilization would be fairly low. With this technology, you can buy a single one- or two-processor machine and run the PDC on the host operating system and ISA and Exchange on VMs by themselves. In the data center, you can take multiple applications that require their own hardware and run them on a single multiprocessor box on their own VMs.

VM technology standards
With Microsoft’s blessing of the technology, I expect to see many companies begin implementing it. Some will choose to use the Microsoft technology, while others will use the more mature and battle-tested VMware product. Your choice will depend on whether you’d rather have support from Microsoft directly or depend on a third party like VMware to support mission-critical application servers.

But VMware may not be your only choice for support. VMware already has alliances with hardware vendors like IBM, HP, and Unisys. And given its experience and focus on providing rich Windows VM solutions on top of Linux, I think VMware will ultimately align with (or be purchased by) IBM. Regardless of the fate of VMware as a company, the Microsoft acquisition of Connectix means that virtual machine technology will move rapidly into corporate data centers over the next three years.