Microsoft to Bring the Cloud to the Datacenter with Server App-V

What exactly is Microsoft going to do to counter VMware, and how are they going to do it? We have published numerous articles that have laid out how VMware is pursuing strategies that have the strong potential to significantly erode Microsoft’s role in the systems software market. To summarize, here is the list of VMware initiatives:

  1. Just getting vSphere installed in the data center makes VMware the layer of interface software to the hardware in the data center. Being the “device driver to the data center” may not sound like a sexy take over the world position but it is very significant. It is significant for two reasons. One – once that layer of software is installed, it becomes the layer that controls resource allocation in the data center, and as a result becomes the layer upon which many other services can be built. We have already seen VMware’s success with building those value added services on top of the hypervisor (vMotion, DRS, FT, SRM, etc.). Two – once that layer is installed and is working, it will be like asbestos in the walls of a building. It will be so hard to remove that it is cheaper to tear down the building than to try to remove the asbestos. In other words, once vSphere is in, the switching costs away from it are very high.
  2. The SpringSource acquisition puts VMware in the position of offering an open source application run time environment (a Tomcat compatible applications server – Spring TC Server) as well as a set of development tools. Let’s remember that the house of Windows was built not by Microsoft, but by third party developers building applications with Microsoft tools (Visual Studio) for the Microsoft platforms (Windows and .Net).
  3. VMware has built a partnership with SalesForce.com through which SalesFore.com will offer VMForce, a VMware based PaaS cloud that will be based upon the VMware vSphere and Spring Java runtime technologies. Now a Java applications developers have a place to run their applications without spending any time on the applications server and operating system plumbing required to deploy and run the application. Look for VMware to make this ability to run Java applications “directly” in a VM available to its enterprise (private cloud) customers in the very near future.
  4. VMware has signed an OEM deal with Novell making SUSE Linux available for free with vSphere. So now you can run any Linux based application in a VMware VM for free without having to buy an OS license or support agreement from either Microsoft or Red Hat.
  5. VMware has made a number of moves to create its own management stack for virtualized, and even physical systems. This includes internal development efforts like CapacityIQ, as well as the acquisitions of B-hive (which lead to AppSpeed), and the acquisitions of four management products from the Ionix division of EMC.

In summary, VMware is aggressively competing with Microsoft at every layer of the systems software business. This includes the virtualization layer, the application platform layer, and the management software layer.

So what is Microsoft Going to Do About It?

Microsoft is at its best when it can identify a competitor to vanquish. The Office team did a great job of vanquishing WordPerfect. Lotus, and Harvard Graphics (if you are not old enough to remember that these three vendors once lead the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation graphics markets – they did). The SQL Server team has done a quite credible job of competing with the Oracle database and making SQL Server into a market leading database server platform. Of course Windows vanquished its early competition which was primarily proprietary flavors of Unix from systems vendors like DEC, HP, IBM and Sun. Of course most of us still remember Netscape, who was vanquished simply by bundling IE into the desktop version of the Windows OS. In all of the above cases, Microsoft did something to “change the rules of the game” in way that disrupted the competitor and changed the nature of the playing field to Microsoft’s advantage. In the case of productivity tools, Microsoft bundled word processing, spreadsheets and presentation graphics into a tightly integrated whole – Microsoft Office that is today one of the largest sources of revenue to Microsoft. In the database server market, Microsoft simply established leadership in the high volume – low price segment of the market and gradually added features to eat at Oracle from below (Oracle still occupies the high end of this market today). In the case of Windows vs Unix, Microsoft shifted the focus away from the technical discussion of which OS was better (Unix was arguably technically superior) to a focus upon developer tools, developer productivity, and therefore a broad range of applications support.

So is there is disruptive strategy coming from Microsoft in the cloud and virtualization space and what might that be? Bob Muglia’s keynote at the recent TechEd Conference in New Orleans gave us some very interesting clues.

App-V for Server Applications

What if Microsoft decides that while server virtualization is a place where it has to compete with VMware, that this will not be the place where it will win? What if Microsoft instead changes the rules of the game and decides to change the conversation to one about how to layer the applications and the operating system so that they can be independently provisioned, managed, and updated? This is exactly what you can do with client side applications today using App-V which resulted from the Softricity acquisition by Microsoft. What if Microsoft applied the App-V technology to server side applications?

Well this is exactly what was demonstrated at Tech-Ed. Server applications were put into containers via a server based version of App-V (called appropriately Server App-V). This allowed server applications to be packaged just like desktop applications can be packaged with App-V. The significance of this is not to be underestimated. You can argue that there is value in breaking the link between a server OS and its hardware. That value comes primarily in the form of the opportunity to consolidate servers which is great for tactical applications that have been massively over-provisioned. However for line of business applications that server capacity is often there for a reason, so a simple consolidation based ROI is in many cases not available for these applications. However if it became much simpler to manage these applications by being able to layer them out from their underlying OS, there would be significant operational benefits from such a layering. Therefore it might just be the case that Server App-V is just the ticket that we need to start to address the business critical applications that have not been virtualized yet.

Microsoft also demonstrated SQL DAC, a technology that abstracts all of the data about a database from the database itself, which then allows databases to be much more effectively provisioned and managed than before.

The only bad news here is that the indications are that Server App-V will be shipped as a part of the next major release of Systems Center, which is not scheduled for release until the first half of 2011. That gives VMware quite some time to get its act together and come up with a response based upon its own ThinApp technology.

Model Based Applications

Microsoft demonstrated an ability to put a model for an application into a template that included the definition of an entire application system including its scaling. So you can define a system that is a collection of Server App-V container and DAC’s that has one database servers, two middle tier servers and between 3 and 20 web servers. The number of web servers will then scale up automatically based upon load.

Automated and Staged Updating

Finally Microsoft demonstrated an ability to leverage the Server App-V layering of the applications and the underlying operating system and to update the operating systems independently of the applications. This solves one of the major operating systems and applications management issues, and will likely usher in significant savings in the ongoing management costs of these platform and applications.

The Impact of the Windows Azure Cloud

Perhaps the most fundamental part of Microsoft’s strategy is to leverage what it builds and learns from the Windows Azure effort back into its offerings for on-premise Windows and the rest of the Microsoft product suite. Microsoft intends to fully leverage its strengths in terms of market adoption of its on-premise solutions to bolster the adoption of Windows Azure, and to fully leverage what it learns building and operating the Windows Azure cloud back into its enterprise products. Some examples of this cross-pollination are:

  • Most large enterprises have adopted Microsoft Active Directory. Microsoft intends to build federated identify management for Azure around Active Directory. So you will have one directory of your employees (Active Directory) and within that directory specify who has access to what. The employee will then be able to log on once with their AD credentials and get access to on-premise applications, applications running in the Azure cloud and even applications that are mashups of cloud based and on premise applications.
  • If you have built or bought Microsoft .Net applications, these applications will be more or less directly portable between your on-premise installation of Windows and the Windows Azure Cloud. This means that Microsoft will leverage its strongest assets – the library of commercial and custom applications built to its platform for the benefit of the Windows Azure cloud. Of course the portability and manageability of these applications will only be enhanced by Server App-V when it is delivered.
  • DAC will make SQL Server databases portable between on-premise instances of Windows, and the Windows Azure cloud.
  • All of this portability will not just be between the Microsoft Azure cloud and your on-premise instance of Windows – Microsoft will also work the third party hosting community to ensure portability between its cloud, third party clouds, and the private clouds owned by enterprises.
  • You will be able to “cloud-burst” an application between your enterprise installation and either the Microsoft or a third party cloud. This means that you will no longer have to buy and own your own capacity for peak loads, you will be able to rent that capacity when you need it from either Microsoft or a third party cloud vendor.

Summary

Microsoft is bringing its strongest assets – the installed base of its key products in the enterprise, and its library of commercial and custom built applications (and their associated developer communities) along with compelling new technologies like Server App-V to the virtualization and cloud fight. Leveraging Azure and App-V along with these existing enterprise assets makes Microsoft into a much more potentially formidable competitor to VMware than Microsoft is today based solely upon Hyper-V. This might be the next example of “changing the rules of the game” by changing the focus from server virtualization to a focus upon how next generation applications are built and managed. Since Microsoft boasts the largest library of applications built to its platform, this game inherently tilts more to Microsoft’s advantage than does the existing game around server virtualization. Can Microsoft “change the subject” once again? The clock on this will probably start sometime in the first half of next year when Server App-V (hopefully) ships. Obviously, VMware has some time to react by bolstering the role of its ThinApp offerings in its product suite.

Bernd Harzog (318 Posts)

Bernd Harzog is the Analyst at The Virtualization Practice for Performance and Capacity Management and IT as a Service (Private Cloud). Bernd is also the CEO and founder of APM Experts a company that provides strategic marketing services to vendors in the virtualization performance management, and application performance management markets. Prior to these two companies, Bernd was the CEO of RTO Software, the VP Products at Netuitive, a General Manager at Xcellenet, and Research Director for Systems Software at Gartner Group. Bernd has an MBA in Marketing from the University of Chicago.

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