Why Microsoft Might Just End Up Owning the Future

The past two years have seen an arms race at the high end of the virtualization arena. The biggest players in the space have competed furiously to add features and capabilities to their combined platform offerings, either by swallowing up smaller companies or investing heavily in product development. MDM, DaaS, hybrid cloud, profile management, application virtualization, application publishing, cloud orchestration—the largest competitors in the virtualization space have either provided, or are looking to provide, these and many more features.

As the biggest companies try to provide the nirvana of an “everything-under-one-roof” end-to-end virtualization solution, a swarm of smaller players try to play catchup, aggressively growing their own product portfolios in a bid to keep their revenue streams maximized or to increase their own chances of acquisition by the larger beasts around them.

The Virtualization Arms Race

vSphere, Hyper-V, and XenServer are amongst the big hitters on the server virtualization level. In the desktop arena, Horizon 6 faces off against XenDesktop, Amazon WorkSpaces, and their ilk. App-V competes with ThinApp. Profile management tools abound, such as Microsoft UE-V, Citrix UPM, View Persona, and many more. XenMobile is positioned against Windows Intune and VMware’s freshly acquired AirWatch. The list of comparable technological features from the big vendors could go on and on. But this arms race isn’t simply confined to the virtualization tech titans—even smaller companies like AppSense and RES are expanding their product lines and software features quite aggressively. A case in point is enterprise file synchronization. It seems that today, a software suite isn’t complete without an enterprise file synchronization option.

Everything Under One Roof

But is the “everything-under-one-roof” nirvana really everyone’s idea of what IT heaven would be like? And should just about every company in the virtualization space be pursuing it so wantonly?

Let’s face it: the needs and expectations of users have changed. Ten years ago, users needed a markedly different IT platform than that which they expect today. A rigid, monolithic desktop image could provide everything that was required. Nowadays, users expect mobility and agility—the ability to access applications and data from an array of different devices and to have them behave in a consistent way across those devices. To accommodate this, IT has had to leverage a wide spectrum of new technologies that enables it to provide the expected level of access.

Pushing for a Bigger Slice

But as the demand for the new, mobile workforce platform grows, vendors are seeking ways to cut themselves ever-larger pieces of the available pie. Over the past two years, they appear to have done so by pursuing the goal of a single-vendor platform that provides every answer to the modern enterprise’s infrastructure needs.

Does this fly in the face of good sense? When I want new tyres put on my car, I take it to my local tyre specialist. When I want the engine tuned, I take it to the dealer (it’s a rare engine). For exhaust modifications, there’s a specialist garage I know that does a lot of custom exhaust work. Not the best analogy, but my point is that although I could get all these things done by just one outlet, I’d have to wonder: would I be getting the best performance—the best bang for my buck?

Should Vendors Keep Doing What They Do Best?

So, is it time that all of the software vendors out there started concentrating on what they’re best at, instead of trying to be the first to provide a fully consolidated end-to-end virtualization platform? Let’s say, just for example, you had Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp running on VMware vSphere, with App-V and System Center providing application virtualization and monitoring. Would that solution be better if the vendors involved were each concentrating simply on making their own piece of the solution as good as it possibly could be?

Unfortunately, I fear that they won’t ever go back to “doing what they do best,” because of one simple reason: money. The tech titans are never going to accept declining revenue streams in the name of better software quality, and most enterprises can’t turn their noses up at a chance to cut costs even slightly. In a time when many IT departments face uncertain futures, cost can quite easily triumph over all else. If you could replace all of your infrastructure software expenditure with just one flat fee to one vendor and still get the platform to do “more or less” the same things at two-thirds of the price, would you? Whilst the technical staff can point to higher volumes of support calls, declining user satisfaction, and less time to spend on other projects as indications that price doesn’t trump all, in a lot of cases, these problems will sadly be ignored when the overall cost of ownership is significantly cheaper.

Portfolio Expansion

So maybe this is why the big vendors—and some of the smaller ones—are so belligerent about expanding their portfolios. Maybe they see a future in which enterprises provide their hybrid clouds, application stores, software services, data repositories and orchestration via a custom end-to-end solution provisioned by a single vendor?

But if that’s true, will the only vendor with any chance of truly owning the marketplace in fact be Microsoft?

Why Microsoft?

Why would it be Microsoft? I recall a conversation I had recently with a client that was realigning its infrastructure solution—unsurprisingly, for financial reasons. The client was replacing NetScaler with NLB, AppSense with UE-V, XenApp with RDS, and vSphere with Hyper-V. Why had it chosen Microsoft over other potential vendors, such as Citrix and VMware?

The reason was simple: “We can’t remove our involvement with Microsoft, because we rely on AD and Exchange.” In other words, in the absence of technological solutions from other vendors that could challenge those two, the client was always going to go running back to Redmond. If the likes of VMware and Citrix—and maybe even Amazon or Google, too—insist on pushing towards an end-to-end solution, they are likely to drive customers towards adoption of the Microsoft portfolio above all else. As my client said, “We will always get some software from Microsoft. So why not get it all?”

Active Directory as a technology is so firmly entrenched that challenging it would probably be a waste of time—almost futile. So, if the above attitude is indicative of those in enterprise IT, then surely Microsoft must be rubbing its hands with glee?

Not a Test of Quality

Comparing the solutions in the example provided above isn’t really a contest in terms of quality. NetScaler is streets ahead of NLB. AppSense is measurably more mature and feature-rich than UE-V. RDS is closing on XenApp, but Citrix’s management tools and product history make its offering much more desirable. Hyper-V has also gained a lot of traction, but it doesn’t (yet) come close to the proven enterprise class of vSphere. But that’s all by the by—because taken as a whole, they all make the whole solution a hell of a lot cheaper. Add to this Microsoft’s excellent System Center suite for monitoring and orchestration, and take into account the possibilities opened up by Azure Active Directory integration. If Microsoft would actually resolve the VDA licensing issues and make virtualized Windows client desktops an affordable reality—well, if the future is end-to-end, then Microsoft might just end up king of the technical arena once more.

But that’s assuming that the end-to-end solution will be adopted by one and all. If time has taught us anything, it’s that the vendors aren’t always right to push in the directions that they do. How many times have we heard now of “the year of VDI,” or “the year of DaaS”? And has anyone actually lived through one?

Of course, there’s always the distinct possibility that I’m being slightly presumptuous to suggest that these big software vendors can’t adapt. Isn’t it feasible that one (or all) of them might make “what they do best” actually become the delivery of this end-to-end, one-size-fits-all infrastructure solution?