In a move to stay competitive in a cloud landscape that looked to be blowing it away, Microsoft this morning is making important strategic shifts that could advance its position in a two-front war against both VMware and Amazon. Today the company is making available a release candidate for its System Center 2012 administrative suite, which will utilize a new fabric controller (FC) for private cloud architectures.

This new FC will be hypervisor-agnostic. Up until today, Microsoft's private cloud product was called "Hyper-V Cloud," and was centered around the Hyper-V hypervisor. Today, as the company's corporate vice president tells ReadWriteWeb, the new SC 2012 Datacenter edition will feature a completely renovated, simplified licensing model, now supporting unlimited virtual machines for the same, flat fee.

Trying to smash VMware flat

"The biggest innovation we did in System Center 2012 is, we dramatically simplified the licensing and pricing," Microsoft CVP Brad Anderson tells RWW. The existing edition had eight different SKUs, enough to compel customers to literally attend seminars about which versions to purchase. With the 2012 edition, there will be the Standard and Datacenter SKUs, the only difference between them being the number of OS instances their licenses will allow. Standard will be limited to 4; Datacenter will be unlimited.

"One thing that we see every year, when we look at the reports, is the VM density-per-server continues to get higher and higher. It's very common right now for us to see a single server hosting up to 20 VMs," says Anderson. "As customers increase their use of virtualization, with SC 2012, their costs do not increase. If they're using VMware, their costs go up linearly."

Last August, VMware adjusted its virtual machine licensing model to one based on the amount of virtual machine memory, or vRAM, each instance consumed. These increments are multiplied by the number of VMs consuming the vRAM, so the result is a per-VM licensing fee.

Microsoft's case is essentially this: As your VMware private cloud scales up, so do your fees. As Microsoft's alternative scales up, its fees stay flat. Though consultants today still recommend a VM-to-processor ratio of about 4:1, arguably that number does tend to go much higher anyway. Microsoft's estimate of the licensing costs an enterprise would incur for VMware vSphere 5 and related tools, for 42 2-way 6-core servers running Windows Server and a respectable 6:1 VM consolidation ratio over a three-year period, is $3,242,000. Microsoft says its alternative package, which incorporates the same functionality over the same three-year period, would be $424,704.

CLARIFICATION: Microsoft has clarified today that with System Center Standard, customers may manage up to two OS instances (the company earlier reported four). With System Center Datacenter, customers will be charged one price regardless of the number of VMs per server.

A tighter-knit fabric

It was Windows Azure, the company's PaaS platform, whose architecture pioneered the concept of the fabric controller - a kind of overseer for cloud resources across servers, and in some respects the opposite of the hypervisor. Now, it's a common part of private cloud architecture, with Nova serving as the compute FC, and Swift and Glance serving as the storage FCs, for OpenStack. That open source architecture has made significant headway, presenting more of a threat than Microsoft to VMware's dominance during 2011.

Now, Microsoft's System Center 2012 will integrate a fabric controller that enables administrators to pool compute, storage, and network switching capacities, and delegate segments of those pools to organizational units in Active Directory. Here is where Microsoft made a difficult decision, knowing that the size of the available market for potential hybrid cloud deployments where only Hyper-V is the hypervisor, is probably next to nil.

"As a design point, we specifically called out that customers will be using multiple hypervisors," Anderson tells RWW, "from Microsoft, from VMware, from Xen, and with public cloud resources. So we've architected the product to be aware of that, but also to give visibility to IT to bring the capacity that is running on multiple virtualization infrastructures, together into one cloud."

As we saw last year with OpenNebula, about the only way a VMware competitor is going to gain ground is by supporting multiple hypervisors.

Hosting persistently

As we reported last week, we expect Microsoft to soon make generally available a feature that entered public beta in early 2011, called VM roles. This feature would essentially enable Windows Azure to host an application, such as SharePoint or Lync, perpetually even as compute resources are managed and relocated.

One big indicator that this release may be imminent, as Brad Anderson tells us, is System Center 2012's direct support for hosting applications as services through private or hybrid clouds. Although Azure has historically been perceived as a PaaS service for companies deploying .NET applications in the cloud, Anderson says SC 2012 may be utilized for both PaaS and IaaS hybrid deployments involving Azure. It's on the IaaS layer that enterprises may host applications as services.

"You can actually create a model that says, 'Here's this three-tier application with a Web tier, a middle tier, a data tier, there's this many servers, and this much capacity for each one of those tiers.' That model will actually be consistent and applicable into that VM role kind of model in Azure as we go forward," he states. "So the same model that you build in System Center for your private cloud will be able to run those VM roles in Azure as we move forward."

As Anderson explained, there are certain "commonalities" in Microsoft's models of the private and public cloud - components which the company will ensure can be reused in the same way when transitioning between private, hybrid, and public cloud architectures: 1) identities in Active Directory; 2) VM consistency (for easier replication); 3) management tools compatibility; and 4) development tools support.

The Release Candidate of SC 2012 is expected to be deployed among 100,000 servers. Once validation is complete, final release is expected to be within the first half of 2012. "What I've been telling people," remarks Anderson, "is, that doesn't mean June 32nd."


VMware is a ReadWriteWeb sponsor.