Over the past seven years or so I’ve seen machine virtualization grow from a neat trick for server consolidation to a platform for agile data center management. Throughout that time there has never been doubt about who is number one in this game. But I’ve also been impressed that VMware has never been complacent about their leader status.

An interesting story has not been so much VMware’s leadership but whether any other 133958124player would ever be a serious and legitimate alternative. Five years ago it was really no contest. Today there is a contest, particularly from Microsoft. But in tracking the progress of competitors we shouldn’t take VMware’s leadership position for granted. VMware doesn’t.

In short, let’s give VMware their due.

Areas of Leadership

In focusing on a competitive landscape we often look at feature parity. Back in the day there were things that VMware did that nobody else did. Things like being able to move a running virtual machine from one host to another and being able to increase the number of VMs that could comfortably share a host machine through memory sharing.

But VMware can rightly claim that, while the competition can add “me too” features, that doesn’t mean that they do it better.  In memory sharing and “over commit”, for example, the competition can claim progress, but VMware has a larger slate of capabilities including memory compression and transparent page sharing. In memory management, VMware is clearly ahead.

Another example is storage management. In a shared environment, storage management is critical. VMware is not the only vendor that has storage management in their portfolio, but VMware is the only one that has built APIs (vSphere APIs for Array Integration or VAAI) to integrate virtual management with the native management of storage arrays. The degree to which storage vendors support VAAI is a differentiating feature in our storage vendor landscapes.

VMware can, and does, point to other areas where they continue to show leadership. In securing virtual infrastructure, for example, VMware has vShield application, data, network, and endpoint security. These have recently been amalgamated under the banner of vCloud Networking and Security 5.1.

Good Enough Might Be Good Enough

Does all this mean that we think VMware is the only and obvious choice for virtualization in your infrastructure? Of course not. You don’t always need to go with best in class. Sometimes good enough is good enough. As noted above, an interesting story has been about whether the competition has been good enough.

A year ago I blogged on how Microsoft is VMware’s only real competitive threat. I still hold to this position. Microsoft has continued to get traction for Hyper-V. The main reason they have not been a champion in our Vendor Landscapes has been the slow general availability release of Hyper-V 3.0 and System Center 2012. Microsoft has a tendency to talk about a product as if it is in general use a year or more before the fact. Only now is it coming together in actual product.

Citrix XenServer has always scored well in our feature-by-feature comparisons with VMware but it has struggled for market share. Citrix no longer argues XenServer as a general replacement for VMware instead focusing on targeting it to areas where Citrix has existing strength such as application and desktop virtualization and service provider clouds.

In the meantime, VMware continues to do what they have always done, focus on where virtualization is going next and innovating to remain the market leader. This includes cloud of course as well as the fully software defined data center (servers, networks, and storage).

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System Center 2012 is Microsoft’s unified systems management platform, intended for hybrid IT environments, in terms of its ability to manage private and public clouds, and physical and virtual servers, as well as in terms of its ability to manage Microsoft and third party products. Its level of success in performing the latter claim is debatable and, I would postulate, not fully realized in this release of System Center.

For large organizations with Microsoft environments, System Center 2012 can be a solid investment, in terms of its ability to provide centralized and automated management. It bundles together a number of components that were previously sold separately, which both simplifies the licensing, but also makes it more expensive.

A core component to the upgrade is System Center’s Virtual Machine Manager (VMM). This component is really the driving force of Microsoft’s strategic vision for System Center as it claims the ability to manage Virtual Machines (VMs) on VMware and Citrix hypervisors, as well as Hyper-V VMs within a single console. However, functionality for the management of these third party server virtualization solutions is basic. If the majority of your virtual infrastructure depends on VMware or Citrix, you will certainly still want to use vSphere or XenServer for managing your VMs.

VMM can now also be used to manage VMs deployed in Azure public cloud, and SP1 (expected to be released soon) includes a new Service Provider Framework API, providing the ability to manage other third party public cloud providers.

A strong benefit in VMM for business users is its Service Template Design and System Center’s App Controller component. These functionalities enable the bundling of VMs that work together to deliver a service into Service Templates that can then be deployed on demand by delegated end users. This ability for self-service of applications is an exciting new feature in its ability to minimize the loss of communication between the business and IT by enabling business users to have the ability to interact with the resources they require and have a level of self-service.

Deployment of System Center is quite complex. Before investing in System Center 2012, consider your environments needs and weight the associated costs of System Center licensing and the infrastructure that is necessary to implement it against the value you will receive out of deploying it.

For more information, see Decide if Microsoft System Center 2012 is Right for the Enterprise.

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