Microsoft charging into desktop and app virtualization, too

Slew of announcements reflecting company's emerging presence in that space

(Editor's note: This story initially misstated that Microsoft is now letting corporate users do desktop virtualization with any version of Windows Vista via its server-based Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) license. VECD continues to be available only for business versions of Vista. Also, the story incorrectly reported that Microsoft was moving to a concurrent-user licensing model for VECD. Actually, customers will continue to need a VECD license for every PC or thin client that is virtualized. Finally, Microsoft asserts that because its Terminal Services software and the streamed forms of desktop or application virtualization it supports rely on the same networking technology, the performance of the two approaches is roughly equal. The story initially said that Terminal Services was slower. It was updated at 7 p.m. EST on Jan. 30 to correct the errors.)

Most of the attention paid to Microsoft Corp.'s virtualization moves have focused on the server side, with its upcoming, virtualization-capable Windows Server 2008 and its stand-alone counterpart, Hyper-V Server.

But Microsoft is also gearing up in the desktop and application virtualization arenas, where server virtualization market leader VMware Inc. is less strong. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced a slew of moves in this space.

Microsoft is cutting the cost of licenses to do desktop virtualization with Windows Vista, and partly lifting other rules on customer companies.

Microsoft will also begin supporting customers who use its Application Virtualization technology to deliver multiple copies of Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007 to a single desktop computer at the same time.

The company also announced an alliance with longtime competitor and partner, Citrix Systems Inc., around desktop virtualization.

Finally, Microsoft has acquired a software firm with technology to improve the performance of its desktop virtualization.

Microsoft and visualization

Server virtualization involves using a hypervisor to create and run multiple virtual machines (VM) on a single server to increase efficiency and dependability.

Desktop and application virtualization also involves creating multiple VMs hosted on a single server (with an entire application stack and operating system in the desktop case, and just the application in the latter).

The difference between these two scenarios and server virtualization is that the VMs are then streamed via network to PCs or thin-client devices that execute the VMs locally. That allows applications to be more easily deployed and managed from a data center rather than installed on the local PC.

The technology is similar to Microsoft Terminal Services, where the company is actually a huge player with more than 50 million licenses sold, according to Shanen Boettcher, a general manager in the Windows client team.

Tech-wise, Terminal Services wholly hosts and executes applications from the server, although Microsoft said that its performance is roughly equal to that of desktop or application virtualization.

In application virtualization, Microsoft is an emerging player, with more than 3 million seats licensed via the Microsoft's Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) according to Boettcher, to use either Application Virtualization 4.5 or its predecessor, SoftGrid Application Virtualization 4.2, which Microsoft acquired in July 2006.

To improve their performance, Microsoft has acquired Calista Technologies Inc. for an undisclosed amount. The company makes data compression software that, when integrated with Microsoft's virtualization and streaming technology, will enable users to get a "full-fidelity Vista Aero experience" via a virtual desktop, according to Larry Orecklin, general manager for Microsoft's System Center group.

Microsoft will also begin offering official support for customers who want to deliver Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007 to users via Microsoft Application Virtualization.

Boettcher did not know when other Microsoft applications might become officially supported under virtualization. Lack of application support has been cited as a potential deterrent to the uptake of virtualization.

Revamping VECD

Microsoft also plans to work with Citrix to make sure that VMs created under Windows Server 2008 will interoperate with Citrix's XenDesktop connection broker and be manageable via Microsoft System Center.

Microsoft has also made significant changes to the license for its desktop virtualization, called Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD).

For PCs, a VECD license now costs $23 a year, down from $78 a year. That excludes the cost of Software Assurance (SA).

For thin-client devices, the price of VECD goes down to $110 a year from $196 a year. This price includes SA.

Each VECD license lets a single PC or device run up to four Windows-based VMs at once. Microsoft said it is continuing to require that customers use VECD with business versions of Windows Vista.

The company also is maintaining its stance that companies need a VECD license for every single device or PC that is ever run under desktop or application virtualization, an unpopular requirement that some observers say is hard to enforce.

In practical terms, that means a company that runs virtualized Windows desktops on all 1,000 of its PCs but only uses 500 at a given time still would need to buy VECD licenses for all of the systems. However, Microsoft will now allow users to run Vista desktop virtualization from their home PCs without having to pay for additional licenses.

Focusing on function, not (potential) piracy

One thing that won't change is that VECD and Microsoft Application Virtualization will remain available only to companies ponying up for a hefty SA license.

Another thing that won't change is Microsoft's official change on how many application licenses are required. In particular, a user running two instances of Office on his desktop that have been streamed down virtually from a server would still need two Office licenses.

However, Microsoft for now plans to take a relaxed view of the increased risk of piracy via application and desktop virtualization. For instance, users may be able to bypass Office's antipiracy technology, Office Genuine Advantage, by installing Office in a VM, validating it and then creating copies of that already validated VM, which it can then distribute near and far.

In server virtualization, Boettcher reiterated that Windows Server 2008 should be released to manufacturing by the end of March, with Hyper-V and Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) RTMing concurrently within six months of that.

Part of the System Center suite of management software, VMM will manage virtual machines created by Microsoft software, as well as those created by VMware or Citrix's Xen hypervisor, Orecklin said. How about Oracle's recently announced virtualization, which is based on Xen technology?

"No. Right now we're focused on where the market and customer demand is," Orecklin said.

Microsoft is holding a Virtualization Deployment Summit at its headquarters today with reps from more than 300 companies that have deployed Hyper-V or the virtualization part of Windows Server 2008.

Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business, will deliver a keynote speech at 8 am PST. A webcast is available on Microsoft's site.

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