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Microsoft, Citrix and VMware: How the three virtualisation offerings stack up

We discover if you're going to get the same experience regardless of the vendor you go with, or is there a genuine differentiating factor between each?

Realistically, there are three major vendors at the core of virtualisation conversations in the industry – VMware, Microsoft and Citrix.

Those are the three that end-users will typically ask after, and those are the three that many systems integrators will lead with as their customers look to cloud environments and beyond.

But what separates the three? Are you going to get the same experience regardless of the vendor you go with, or is there a genuine differentiating factor between each?

Applaud IT managing director, Ricci Danieletto, speaking in simple terms, summarised the core differences between the three as such: “This is put very simplistically, of course, but we believe at a desktop level Citrix has prime place. We think that VMware owns the datacentre, and then you’ve got Microsoft that will establish a presence simply though the power they represent commercially for customers that might be price conscious.

“We forged partnerships with all three vendors precisely because we believe they all have something to offer for the cross section of our customer base.”

Of course, the three vendors also play in one another’s space, Danieletto said. Citrix has a datacentre solution that can be deployed at the core, and it acquired XenSource to help diversify its offering.

Meanwhile, both VMware and Microsoft have excellent desktop solutions, dipping into Citrix’ space.

Overall, Danieletto said Citrix had the most to lose in the virtualisation space, especially as Microsoft further flexes its marketing muscle.

“I think all vendors are conscious of the fact that VMware is a virtualisation leader, and Microsoft will make a play,” he said. “Potentially, Citrix has the most to lose and that’s probably why it acquired Xen when it did. Is XenServer establishing a bigger presence as the other two? I suggest probably not, certainly not in the engagements we’re having with out customers.

“But it does have two very solid desktop products, and I think it’ll take a while for that marketplace to be encroached on.” So how do the three vendors view the market?

Citrix

From a Citrix perspective, there is only one competitor in the virtualisation space – VMware. Microsoft, for all Danieletto’s concerns that its muscle flexing will push Citrix into uncomfortable places, is a partner.

“We are partners, especially in the desktop virtualistion space where we’re leading with Microsoft technology on Hyper V and some of the technologies for application virtualisation. They’re integrated as part of the Citrix end-to-end virtualisation solution set,” Citrix Asia-Pacific vice-president for products and the Microsoft alliance, Nabeel Youakim, said.

“On the server side I think all three vendors have reasonable product. VMware have had a product in that market for a long time. It’s quite a good product of course, but the only challenge with it is the price – it’s a very expensive product for how people use it.”

So one point of competitive advantage to Citrix is in price. As XenServer becomes an increasingly viable enterprise play, Youakim sees the 20-30 per cent savings on the total price you might pay for a VMware solution to help the vendor gain traction in those big accounts.

The problem is in helping those large accounts understand what they’re missing out on. A big part of Citrix’ messaging seems to be simple, boiling down to ‘hey, guys, have a look at us.’

“I don’t think customers have done a good job of evaluating the two products, and it’s because most people just started with VMware and they’re still there today on the server side,” Youakim said.

“We are out there working with our partners all the time, educating them on the XenServer feature set and how to do a quick proof of concept for customers.”

And, of course, Citrix claims that server virtualisation is only a small part of the battle. The real complexity lies in the desktop virtualisation conversation, and here Citrix is king.

“We’ve been working on performance issues, how to run video and how to get performance with graphical applications. We’ve solved all these problems. VM ware is still learning that. VMware is definitely a server virtualisation company and it’s working its way to the desktop, but it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know yet,” Youakim said.

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VMware

VMware’s vice president, Australia and New Zealand, Paul Harapin, is very quick to point out that price is not something the vendor considers important, or for that matter virtualising servers.

“I think what you see from other people who are trying to place in this space is ‘hey, we can virtualise a server.’ To be honest, I haven’t talked about customers virtualising servers for three years,” Harapin said.

“The other discussion from the others tends to be ‘hey, we can virtualise this server cheaper than VMware'. Well, to be honest, that’s not the discussion point of any of my customers and the result of our business, last quarter, growing 71 per cent quarter-on-quarter, I think testifies that customers see massive value in what VMware is bringing to their business. It’s not just about saving money on servers.”

VMware is in a privileged position in being the first prominent vendor to the space, and the recent turn out of some 17,000 people to its

VMworld conference suggest that it still has a great deal of momentum behind it.

The vendor has steadily groomed a stable of partnerships to help it to create broader, more integrated market offerings too. Vendor partners of

VMware include HP, IBM, Intel, Cisco, EMC, NetApp, Trend Micro, Symantec and SAP.

Harapin is keen to point out that the vendor has a clear vision of a journey it is taking its customers on – and the long-term view to virtualisation and cloud computing is one of VMware’s most compelling market propositions.

“It’s covering three levels now – basic server virtualisation really is just a small percentage of the story here. It’s this new stack for hybrid cloud computing that we’ve brought to market and are working on that enables IT as a service. I think it’s an unmatched vision from anyone in IT today,” Harapin said.

Microsoft

Microsoft, like Citrix, sees a commoditisation effect happening in the virtualisation space that is making price an issue. However, the vendor’s primary concern is, with little difference in the virtualisation technologies themselves, it’s how customers manage the environment that is the true battlefield.

“The key differentiator in the way we look at management in a virtualised environment is that we don’t differentiate or use different tools to manage a virtual environment compared to a physical environment,” Microsoft Australia server and virtualisation product manager, Rosemary Stark, said.

“The way we look at the virtual environment is that it should really be an extension of the physical environment. You shouldn’t have to have separate policies and separate tools that you try and integrate back into your physical environment.”

With Microsoft’s current energy behind cloud computing and the famous ‘if you’re not with us in the journey to the cloud, we’re probably not the vendor for you’ quote Steve Ballmer made at the global partner conference this year, Microsoft needs to get the stepping stones to the cloud – virtualistion – right.

“Customers don’t really care so much about the operating system,” Stark said. “The value to the business is in that operating system being up and running and forming and supporting the application. You need to know the application stack is working well.

“The ability to back it up effectively, as well as decommission and upgrade – that whole cycle of being able to do all of those things, that’s really what Microsoft has at the core.

So for Microsoft, it’s a pragmatic approach of giving the people what they want in a manner that is easy and familiar for them to look after. And, according to Stark, it’s working.

“A number of our partners are starting to recommend the Microsoft virtualisation capabilities and lead with them,” she said. “We have conversations with them around building a virtualisation practice, as opposed to a VMware practice or a Microsoft virtualisation practice. We believe the best outcome for a partner is to have a balanced view where they can offer a balanced view and a solution that makes sense for their customer.”

As you can see, the three virtualisation amigos do all have their own unique approach on the market, and this gives partners, such as Applaud, plenty of leverage space in what continues to prove to be a lucrative and dynamic sector of the industry.