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Hyper-V 'Release Candidate' Arrives

Microsoft released a near-final version of its virtualization engine for Windows Server 2008 on Wednesday, possibly putting its vaunted Hyper-V hypervisor technology ahead of its current schedule. The release candidate is feature complete, the company said in a statement.

The technology, which has been in beta test since late last year, has now reached what Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) calls the "release candidate" stage – the final phase of testing before the company officially releases a product or technology.

If no "showstopper" bugs are found in the release candidate, then it will be released – but often the company will go through several such candidates before it certifies the code for final release.

"This is a key milestone signaling that Microsoft is on track to deliver Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V virtualization by August 2008," said a company spokesperson in an e-mailed statement.

Hyper-V is Microsoft's entry into the competition for hypervisor-based virtualization engines, an important topic on IT shops' minds these days due to the technology's promise to lower costs by simplifying deployment and management of server and desktop applications.

A hypervisor is a small, specialized operating system that sits directly on top of the server hardware and lets the server (the "host") run more than one operating system above it (a "guest"), each within its own virtual machine (VM).

Though it hasn't shipped in final form yet, Hyper-V is a key component of Microsoft's recently released Windows Server 2008, and an updated beta version of the hypervisor now comes with the server.

The latest release of Hyper-V now supports 32- and 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2003, along with Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 SP1, Windows Vista SP1, and Windows XP SP3 as guest operating systems, according to an FAQ on the Windows Server division Weblog. It also supports both 32- and 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2008.

Hyper-V also now runs on all 64-bit (x64) versions of the various editions of Windows Server 2008 -- Standard, Enterprise, and Datacenter. Earlier betas ran only on the Enterprise edition. The release candidate also features partial localization for German and Japanese, which means that "when Hyper-V is enabled on Windows Server 2008 Japanese or German many of its text strings will appear properly translated," the blog entry stated. Hyper-V will provide full localization for the two languages when it is released.

The company released a pre-beta version of what's now known as Hyper-V in the form of a community technology preview, or CTP, in September.

Microsoft shipped the first full beta test release of Hyper-V – formerly codenamed "Viridian" – in December. It arrived ahead of expectations as well so with this release it might appear that Hyper-V is catching up to competitors.

In fact, Microsoft is far behind in the hypervisor competition. Its chief competitor, EMC-owned (NYSE: EMC) VMware (NYSE: VMW), has been in the virtualization market for more than a decade and its ESX Server is the dominant player among hypervisors.

However, one analyst cautions IT shops not to get impatient.

"[The release candidate] is a positive sign," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft, "But just because they got the first release candidate out doesn't mean that they'll make it [the final release date] on time," he added. Microsoft has promised that the final code for Hyper-V will ship within six months of the launch of Windows Server 2008 – which was released in late February.

In the meantime, Microsoft officials have tried to spin low adoption rates for hypervisor-based virtualization worldwide as leaving plenty of room for Hyper-V to help create a much larger market.

For instance, onstage at the launch of Windows Server 2008 last month, CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the company lags behind its competitors.

"We're not the leader in server virtualization," Ballmer told the audience, but added that only five percent of all servers worldwide were running virtualization software.

"We want to democratize virtualization. It should be on 90 percent or 100 percent of servers, and not just five percent," Ballmer said. His recipe for accomplishing that goal is to provide Hyper-V essentially free with Windows Server 2008. (The company now says that ten percent of all servers are running virtualization software.)

This is one case where Microsoft's size may not help it muscle in on the market, according to one analyst.

"Microsoft’s Hyper-V RC [release candidate] arrives at a time when the market for x86 virtualization has been essentially defined by VMware," analyst Charles King, principal analyst at researcher Pund-IT, said in a statement.

"The conventional wisdom [is] that the company’s sheer size makes it a serious competitor wherever it decides to play [and] that should certainly be a concern, but we see a number of obstacles in the way, [including that] VMware has found a remarkable number of Fortune 1000 customers who drive significant sales and revenues," King added.

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