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VMware freebie may bring virtual servers to the masses

Competition among virtualization software vendors brings some real benefits to users.

For the many IT managers who view virtualization as a strategic, albeit expensive, part of their business strategy, VMware Inc.'s decision to offer a free, entry-level server was a bit of nice news for a change.

VMware executives said that the company is now testing VMware Server. The software will be available sometime in the first half of this year. The software will be a follow-on to the existing GSX Server, which competes directly with Microsoft's own Virtual Server 2005 in that both technologies run on top of a host operating system.

VMware Server is designed for entry-level partitioning, said Dan Chu, senior director of developer and ISV products at VMware, in Palo Alto, Calif. But it also will include support for 64-bit virtual machines, virtual symmetrical multiprocessing and support for Intel's chip-level virtual technology.

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Although this software is free, Chu said he expects that his company will still make money because customers will want to buy upgrades and support. Customers may try the free version and then want to move up to a more sophisticated platform.

"[VMware Server] is a commercial offering with leading edge technology," Chu said. "What it doesn't offer compared to our infrastructure products like VMotion is the large-scale manageability or high-availability features.

Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc. uses ESX Server, a version of VMware's virtualization software that runs directly on the hardware. The option of having a free virtualization server product from VMware, even if it's not of the same variety, may let us add virtual servers in more places where before the cost might have not been justified, said Jamey Vester. Vester is an IT manager at Subaru of Indiana, the Lafayette, Ind., manufacturing facility for Subaru Outbacks.

"If they give this away, there may also be more secondary development by those who can't afford it," Vester said. VMware's GSX Server is pricey at roughly $2,500 to $2,800 per CPU. For anyone running a big installation of servers, the costs can add up quickly, he said.

Vester isn't the only VMware customer that's watching the company's offer. "We're going to keep a close eye on this announcement too," said Joseph Foran, director of IT at FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn., non-profit, social services agency with both ESX Server and GSX Server. "[VMware] is a fairly expensive investment."

Microsoft said it will be building virtualization capabilities into its operating system, but it won't be ready for several more years. Another competitor is Xen, an open-source alternative. Foran has also tested Xen and found the freeware "impressive."

With the added backing of XenSource for support, he said he believes that small and medium business customers might see Xen as a good option today. "In two or three years, Xen might be toe-to-toe with VMware for large enterprises," Foran said.

One analyst saw VMware's move as savvy and aggressive. One danger for VMware, said analyst Gordon Haff, has been that products coming online like Xen, might pull business away from VMware. Haff is with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

"An enhanced free version of a proven product will keep VMware as the clear default choice for many," Haff said. "And not incidentally, it's a move that Microsoft will be hard pressed to answer effectively anytime soon."

Matt Stansberry, news editor at, contributed to this story.

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