Battle of the free server virtualization tools

Let's take a look at the free server offerings from VMware and Microsoft

With the recent initial public offering of VMware being greeted with a resounding cheer from investors, it's clear that virtualization is increasingly important to businesses. Corporations are working virtualization strategies into their budgets and plans, and suppliers have responded with a number of products. In fact, two major players in the industry, VMware and Microsoft, are offering their previously for-pay server products for free, presumably to foster demand for their more-expensive and more-capable enterprise systems.

For casual use, of course, the desktop versions of these products -- also freely available -- will work, but what if you want to scale and consolidate multiple physical servers onto one? What if you're interested in management features, monitoring and the ability to move machines from one virtual machine server to another? It's time to consider a server-level product.

Let's take a look at the free server offerings from VMware and Microsoft. In particular, we'll look at the comparative advantages of each -- after all, they both run virtual machines, and they both do it pretty well; it's the features "on the margin" that will make a difference to you.

VMware Server

VMware Server runs on standard 32-bit hardware, although it supports guest machines that are running 64-bit editions of popular operating systems such as Windows, Solaris and Linux. You can do virtual multiprocessing using VMware's Virtual Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP) feature, and you can also capture the state of any particular virtual machine and subsequently roll it back at any time. This is useful for testing new features of software or for building baseline test environments.

VMware server also imports Microsoft virtual machine format files, and it can import images created with Symantec Corp.'s LiveState Recovery, making it a multifaceted product that's not "siloed" into one proprietary format. The ability to import Microsoft files is a pretty big deal, especially in companies acquiring other companies or in deployments where both products are in use.

You can purchase VMware Server support separately. Since the product is free, there is not any enterprise-class support offered by default. It also does not include any centralized management capabilities; instead, that feature is reserved for the for-pay VirtualCenter software that VMware also sells.

Perhaps the most useful ability in VMware Server is the Virtual Appliance Marketplace. These virtual appliances range from demonstration versions of products that software manufacturers have already preconfigured to fully operable open-source environments. The appeal of these "appliances" is that they're ready to go -- you simply download the appliance file from the Marketplace, open the VMware Server console and the appliance file, and press the virtual power button.

Presto, there's a machine ready to go. It's an excellent way to test alternative operating systems, evaluate new products and even deploy a mini-infrastructure. I'm familiar with several outfits that have used a Linux-based mail scrubbing appliance downloaded from the Marketplace as their first line of defense against spam.

Download VMware Server here.

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