Microsoft details Virtual Server upgrades

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Microsoft on Wednesday detailed changes to its Virtual Server plans, announcing it will shift its next update of the software from a maintenance release to a paid upgrade.

The software maker, which had earlier announced plans to issue a service pack for Virtual Server 2005, said it will instead release a product in the fourth quarter of this year known as Virtual Server 2005 R2. Microsoft said the new version, already in beta, will offer improvements to performance and availability.

“There are a number of new features in the product we’re introducing that make this much more full featured and robust… than a service pack,” Microsoft group program manager Mark Kieffer said in a presentation at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

Virtualisation software such as Microsoft’s Virtual Server, EMC’s VMware and XenSource’s Xen lets a server simultaneously run multiple operating systems. Advocates argue that virtualisation lets companies reduce the number of servers they need by letting jobs run more efficiency on a smaller number of machines.

Next year, Microsoft will issue another, larger update to the Virtual Server product, the company said. A beta version of that update is planned for the first half of the year and a final release slated for the second half of 2006.

In a keynote address earlier on Wednesday, Intel general manager Pat Gelsinger demonstrated an early version of that next-generation Virtual Server release, which he called Virtual Server 2006, saying the software will support Intel’s virtualisation technology, simply called VT — a chip feature that makes virtualisation simpler and faster. Microsoft said the software also will support AMD’s equivalent to VT, called Pacifica.

Microsoft said that new version of the software will also offer strengthened isolation so the corruption of one virtual machine will not affect other virtual machines on the same system.

The Virtual Server 2006 release, though, will act as a bridge as Microsoft works to shift the work of virtualisation into the Windows platform itself, using a technology known as a hypervisor. Kieffer said that Microsoft is aiming to have that technology be a part of the server version of Longhorn, which is scheduled for release in 2007, though, unlike the client version, it has not yet been officially named.

Microsoft also is adding support for Linux, following through on a pledge chief executive Steve Ballmer made in April. Linux and other non-Windows operating systems already work with Virtual Server, but Microsoft has not offered support for any problems that customers might encounter with other operating systems.

Kieffer said Linux support would probably come by the end of this year.

“We’re probably talking about Red Hat and Novell,” Kieffer said, adding that the company is still deciding which specific distributions will be supported.

Microsoft shipped the first version of Virtual Server last year, following several delays. The company obtained the technology as part of its February 2003 acquisition of assets from Connectix.

Kieffer also listed several future Windows server virtualisation features. Among them:

  • An individual virtual machine will be able to run powerful multiprocessor work loads — likely as many as eight processors for a single machine.
  • Users will be able to move virtual machines as they run from one computer to another “with no visible downtime.”
  • Users will be able to store a virtual machine’s state on a hard drive, letting a user stop and restart a virtual machine or take “snapshots” of a machine at a particular time.
  • Microsoft will support both 32-bit and 64-bit virtual machines, though a 64-bit operating system will be required to host the system.
  • Microsoft will compensate for different memory access speeds that are increasingly common in mainstream servers. This computer design principle is called nonuniform memory access, or NUMA, and Kieffer said it’s a complicating factor with multicore processors.