MVP Summit 2010 – Microsoft’s Universe of Virtualization

When I attended the MVP Summit at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond last week, there was this moment when a simple truth struck me: Microsoft is sooooo different from VMware and Citrix and Apple.  Well, you may say that this doesn’t come as a big surprise.  Most probably you are right, but this time it’s for a different reason.  It happened when an MVP’s question to one of the Microsoft Windows product groups top managers was “Where do Windows workstation and Windows server product lines meet when decisions about the general virtualization strategy are made?” and the answer was “At Steve Balmer”! What? Are you serious?

Even if this answer may not be 100% accurate, it gave me some valuable insight into how Microsoft sees the IT universe, a simple fact that was confirmed again and again during a number of conversations I had with Microsoft folks over the last week.  It looks like Microsoft does not intend to convince “the market” – customers, partners, IT professionals, consultants and system integrators – of a specific virtualization strategy.  It looks like Microsoft avoids predicting a single virtualization scenario which they believe will be the one and only future option.  There is not this one truth spread by Microsoft evangelists.  Instead, Microsoft simply tries to have enough products on stock for all potential virtualization scenarios!

What does that mean?  Microsoft is always working on many new products, some of them brand new, some of them in stealth mode and others just new version of existing products.  All these Microsoft development activities follow a common design pattern, demanding that all resulting products must have the potential to be good for the masses.  I mean in the range of several 100 million units.  This doesn’t imply that all products will really become successful enough to sell at big scale.  But each of them could be a 100 million seller, if the market decided to go into a specific direction.  And if not, Microsoft just dumps a product that didn’t make it after a while, or gives it another try with a different developer team, waiting for a second chance.  Dumping a product doesn’t mean that it was technically bad; it just means that it was not accepted by the masses or that the timing was not good.  There are quite some Microsoft products I would not regard as technically superior, but have a big market share and thus are successful according to Microsoft’s definition of success.  It seems like Microsoft’s overall mission is “good enough beats great” when done at the right time and at the right prize, in particular when looking at the virtualization market.

This brings me to VMware.  Their strategy is convincing the market that virtual desktops are the future, now that their initial mission of virtualizing servers is almost complete.  In the VMware universe, there is no other valid future scenario, only virtual desktops, nothing else, no matter what.  And they are convinced that this scenario requires the best-of-breed products which VMware claims to provide.  If VMware was in the building and construction industry, offering sophisticated bathrooms and kitchens, they would say that it’s enough to have a bathroom and kitchen to live in.  In a way they are right.  As a matter of fact, you can happily live in an apartment that only has a nice bathroom and a big enough kitchen with a bed – an apartment I rented when I was at university was pretty much that way.

But there are situations when you want a living room, extra sleeping rooms, a basement, an attic or a patio.  Probably you don’t need them all at the same time or you need them in different combinations at different occasions.  But you want to have the freedom of choice, despite the fact that not all of these rooms can be of superior quality right from the beginning.  In the virtualization market, it’s pretty much the same.  We have server virtualization, session hosting (aka presentation virtualization or terminal services), desktop virtualization, client hypervisors, application virtualization, storage virtualization, cloud computing and more.  It’s Microsoft’s clear ambition to have good enough solutions for all of them – or have a trusted partner ecosystem to fill the gaps.  This is where Citrix comes into the game, and Quest, and Symantec, and many others – but not necessarily VMware with their one-size-fits-all vision of virtual desktop for everybody.  The Microsoft universe is so different from the VMware universe.

Unfortunately, Citrix seems to be impressed by VMware’s strategy on one side and by Apple’s success in the consumer market on the other side.  When translating this into the apartment story again, Apple wants to convince us all to live in a really cool trailer, just because it’s mobile and it’s all you need to be trendy.  This all inspires Citrix to concentrate on building trailers for business people – including big bathrooms – instead of continuing building great living rooms and sleeping rooms and patios for Microsoft houses.  Come on Citrix, give me a break.  I know you can do better than this.  Tell your customers that you have a spectrum of products that goes far beyond trailers.

All that being said, what are the implications?  I get the impression that Microsoft does not have that one solid vision of what the virtualization technology of the future will be.  And to be honest, they just don’t need to.  With all the money and developers they have, they can afford building good enough products for all possible virtualization scenarios and ship them right after they see that the mass market is ready for them – plus provide some early teasers to probe the market.  They were always extremely successful being a second mover, letting others – like VMware and Apple – find out what the real market trends are.  As soon as a market trend is confirmed to generate substantial revenue, Microsoft can use their marketing power to deliver the right products.  The trick is not to lose touch with the successful market seekers and keep on developing all sorts of solutions with the hope that some of them will become relevant in the future.  Not the fastest and not the most elegant method, but very successful so far.

Now, what about Citrix?  My personal opinion is that if Citrix was smart, they would just use the spectrum of the outstanding products they already own and continue to use them to convert good enough Microsoft products into great solutions for specific market segments.  I don’t believe that copying central aspects of Apple’s or VMware’s marketing strategy is beneficial for Citrix and their customers.  The IT universe has more to offer than just virtual desktops.

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