Virtualization: While Microsoft loses more time, VMware loses more execs

We've been told virtualization is the fastest evolving sector of the computing industry. But now, VMware is running on autopilot without its key scientists, and Microsoft hopes another delay won't hurt it too much.

In advance of a major virtualization trade show in Las Vegas next week, two of the industry's key players will most definitely not be firing on all cylinders. Smartly diffusing a potential powder keg by letting the news out yesterday at its own show, Microsoft demonstrated live migration, a very long awaited key feature of its hardware-supported Hyper-V virtualization suite, only to tell attendees it wasn't actually coming to a data center near you until at least 2010.

While VMware is usually one to gloat when such news emanates from Microsoft, its typical post-demo retort seemed muted this morning, perhaps in the wake of even more of the company's heart and soul departing for greener pastures. This morning, as first reported by, VMware announced the resignation of the company's chief scientist and co-founder, Mendel Rosenblum, making the fourth key executive from the era prior to its acquisition by EMC to leave. Rosenblum's wife, ten-year veteran VMware CEO Diane Greene, was ousted by the EMC-led board of directors in July, and replaced with former Microsoft executive Paul Maritz.

Rosenblum's colleague, executive vice president for R&D D. Richard Sarwal, resigned from VMware just last week to return to his former employer, Oracle. And The New York Times learned that Paul Chan, VMware's VP for product development, already left the company last month without the company making a sound.

The bad news from two of the world's virtualization leaders could be the virtual equivalent of blood in the water, that could excite a growing pool of would-be competitors into a frenzy. If VMware has a plan going forward under EMC's leadership, it hasn't been very well articulated. And Microsoft's plan to capture the virtualization market from the bottom up may be seriously jeopardized.

While data server consolidation -- running more applications simultaneously on fewer server processors -- is the principal selling point for Microsoft's Hyper-V, data centers where processors are already clustered are already well past the whole consolidation issue. They're dealing with elimination of downtime -- not reduction, not minimization, but elimination. Data centers are effectively the modern world's supercomputers, and real-time processing is critical there; one second of downtime can ruin an evaluation.

For data centers that host so-called "cloud computing" applications, zero downtime is also critical requirements of service-level agreements (SLAs). Any downtime situation forces an entire network to reorganize its workload, and that takes time and resources. But with a proper replication scheme, live migration enables a network to simply throw a switch when a processor fails, moving an active virtual machine from point A to point B without anyone or anything ever noticing.

VMware has had live migration (called "VMotion") as a key feature for years, in wide adoption since 2005; while Microsoft has created stop-gap features -- even renaming one old feature ("host-level clustering") to look like a new stop-gap feature ("quick migration") -- to fend off VMware's main claim to superiority.

But if there's any bright light at the end of Microsoft's newly elongated tunnel today, it could come from the fact that the creators and engineers of what was supposed to be VMware's next great innovation -- the further development of a processor-level security platform for virtual machines called VSafe -- just exited through the back door. Rosenblum reportedly accepted a teaching post at Stanford University, so it doesn't look like any competitor will be gaining the benefit of VMware's former braintrust any time soon.

The question then becomes, will a gathering throng of very strong, very familiar-looking competitors -- including Citrix with its recently acquired Xen product line, Sun with its recently acquired Innotek product line, and Red Hat with its just acquired Qumranet -- hit the ground running in Las Vegas next week. More importantly, perhaps, which will be the first to attack this now vulnerable market from the top, at the data center level?

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