Microsoft eyes the virtual data centre

Microsoft Corp. hopes to play alongside Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others in developing “virtual data centre” software that will make it easier to manage applications running across groups of servers, a company executive said Wednesday.

“It’s a problem that we’re pretty excited about solving, and there are lots of things we’re doing to tackle it across the company,” said Bill Veghte, corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s Windows server group, in a presentation at the company’s Silicon Valley campus here Wednesday.

“Think of it not only in the context of what Windows Server can do on the deployment and operation and policy side, but think about how applications are written and how server applications such as Exchange and SQL Server can take advantage of (virtualization),” he said.

Veghte made the comments at the end of a presentation about Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Server 2003 software, which is due for release April 24.

Without providing a timeframe or much detail about the data centre software under development, he said the company will provide a “system definition model” that will reduce the time it takes to develop applications for the data centre. It will also provide “resource virtualization and partitioning” software that will help businesses make more efficient use of their hardware.

Sun and HP already have outlined plans to offer software and hardware for building a virtual data centre, and have rolled out some initial components. The idea basically is to let administrators manage a large group of servers and other hardware as if it were a single large machine. Another goal is to make better use of hardware resources and make it easier to deploy and manage applications on those systems.

Veghte said more work can be done during the development stage of software to provide capabilities that make it easier to manage applications in such an environment.

“Instead of management being an afterthought, which is the problem we have in the industry today, where you’ve got vendors providing solutions that aren’t really bolted into the platform, we have to invert that. We have to bolt it into the platform so that we can consume this schema, or this definition from applications, and then expose it for innovative third-party tools. If we can do that then you have the operational automation that is necessary to get away from the complexity in a data centre today,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on his remarks afterwards, Veghte declined, saying Microsoft isn’t ready yet to discuss its plans in detail.

Some of Veghte’s remarks echoed goals already expressed by HP, Sun and others. Customers have more hardware capacity than they need to run their software because managing a datacenter efficiently is too complex, he said. But he placed more emphasis than HP and Sun on the work that can be done with applications.

“It’s about managing the application, not the box,” he said. “To do that you’ve got to start with the development of the application. You’ve got to be able to describe the policy and the behaviour and the consumptive attributes of it. Then that rolls into your management infrastructure in the software platform,” he said.

Sun and HP’s existing data centre virtualization software can manage environments that include Windows servers.

Veghte made his remarks as Microsoft gears up for the release of Windows Server 2003, which he described as the company’s most important software release of the year. Microsoft hopes the product will allow it to become more of a player in the data centre, a lucrative market where Unix systems from Sun, HP and IBM are dominant today.

Windows Server 2003 is designed to fulfill three basic roles, he said. It will act as an “infrastructure platform” for managing an IT environment, an “application server platform” for deploying applications, and an “information worker productivity platform” that supports collaboration and shared file access, Veghte said.

The product will be offered in several editions including a version for smaller businesses, a Standard Edition for branch offices and medium-sized businesses, and a high-end Datacenter Edition, which will run on 32-processor servers, support 64GB of main memory and run on clusters of up to eight nodes, he said.

The goal is to provide the basic components for certain computing “scenarios” out of the box, such as deploying applications over wireless networks or enabling collaboration between workers using instant messaging, file sharing and other tools.

“Anything that is a mainstream development capability we want to deliver out of the Windows server platform,” he said.

To succeed in the data centre, he acknowledged, Microsoft’s operating system will need to interoperate well with Unix systems and other non-Microsoft platforms.

“There are and will continue to be significant numbers of Unix servers in the installed base” and Microsoft has to develop products that interoperate with those systems, he said.

He acknowledged that people have been “confused” by Microsoft’s interoperability strategy. Windows 2003 Server contains several features that make it more compatible with other types of systems, including Microsoft’s existing Service for Unix, which he said allows Unix scripts and commands to run on its servers.

He said products such as directories and application servers from third-party vendors can be used with Microsoft’s new operating system, but he acknowledged there will be certain “trade-offs” when customers choose products from other vendors.

For information workers, the company added a set of storage interfaces that allow the operating system to work better with snap-shot products that are used to back up users’ files and applications.

“We never really had good interfaces for back-up vendors,” he said.

In a nod to the open source development model of which Microsoft has been so critical, Veghte said Microsoft must learn to be more “transparent” and communicate more with developers outside the company as it designs its products.

“There’s a lot we can learn from Linux and the community development model,” he said.

The concepts of using a community of software developers to debug products and to communicate more with customers are “all things I think we need to learn,” Veghte said.

“We have to learn to participate as part of a broader community,” he said.

At the same time he defended the “commercial” software development model, which he said leads to the development of more “rigorous” products.