VMware invests in an SMT provider in its battle against Microsoft

Public perception is half the battle, especially when the prize is a virtual one. Yesterday, VMware placed a big bet that it could be perceived as a full-service provider like Microsoft, by acquiring a systems management tool company called B-hive.

Last year, Microsoft officials admitted they didn't hold any expectations for their company to suddenly become perceived as the world leader in virtualization, even if they end up outshipping VMware or Citrix XenSource quantitatively by virtue of the availability of Hyper-V for Windows Server 2008. But it did intend to leverage its existing position not only as an operating system provider but as an indisputable competitor in systems management tools, as a way to offer customers at least a complete package.

This may have sent a clarion call to VMware that, if it wants to maintain its stronghold on the specialty of virtualization, it may need to expand its reach somewhat into the areas where Microsoft has leverage. Yesterday, VMware did that in an almost Microsoft-like fashion: by acquiring B-hive, the producer of an IT infrastructure performance monitoring tool called Conductor that's geared toward virtualized server environments.

B-hive Conductor is an intriguing product whose claim to fame is its capability to dynamically map all the components in an IT infrastructure -- both real and virtual -- by monitoring database transactions triggered by service-oriented applications, and following how servers respond. It literally appears to "ride piggy-back" along with transactions, and in so doing, making sure the way they're distributed and processed is in compliance with binding service-level agreements (SLAs).

What's most innovative about this approach is that it's agent-less -- meaning, it doesn't require the installation of a sub-network of software-based agents throughout an enterprise, making observations and filing regular reports on what they see. That's the approach taken by Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) -- and while it's historically been effective, it hasn't exactly scaled all that well in the burgeoning world of virtualization, where virtual servers are now often provisioned and decommissioned on the fly.

In fact, one of Conductor's capabilities is the dynamic provisioning of servers. Using a process that's not unlike setting up a filtering rule for Outlook e-mail, Conductor enables an admin to monitor the progress of service-level transactions, and implement rules that trigger events when that progress data meets or exceeds a given threshold. For instance, if it's taking too long for certain transactions to be processed, Conductor can trigger the provisioning of new ones -- especially virtual ones.

Microsoft does have an alternative, but as documentation shows, it relies on a lot of Microsoft components coming together. Under a System Center scheme, similar provisioning is theoretically possible using a combination of SCOM and System Center Virtual Machine Manager. VMM utilizes its own network of agents, which is strung and restrung when new virtual servers are provisioned (see this Dell white paper in PDF format for more).

What's more, as Microsoft found itself admitting last week, the latest VMM 2008 beta isn't yet compatible with Hyper-V, the company's own hardware-supported virtual server module, even though both are in development simultaneously and Hyper-V RC0 was released just last week.

One reason VMware may have acted now is because B-hive was seen making nice with XenSource parent company Citrix -- VMware's other opponent in the virtualization space -- as a major player in Citrix' most recent trade show event last January.

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