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VMware's dominance of the x86 virtualisation market faces increasing competition from Microsoft and open-source rivals. Proof of that was apparent at VMware's VMworld user conference here, where rivals have trade show booths and the backpacks handed out to attendees at registration contain a disc with Microsoft's competing virtualisation product tucked inside.

While VMware's display of openness to it competitors prompted some surprise and grins from some users, David Freed, a senior systems analyst for the city of Los Angeles finance department said the competition is needed.

As a result of this competitive pressure, VMware is "getting much quicker at releasing upgrades," said Freed, who sees rivals forcing VMware to be more aggressive about dropping prices and adding features. "Competition is doing a good thing for the consumer," he said.

EMC-owned VMware is synonymous with x86 virtualisation, and the company has a substantial customer base. VMworld drew some 7,000 attendees, and users and analysts agree that the company is well ahead of competitors in virtualisation software with sophisticated functionality. But that doesn't mean it faces no competition in corporate IT.

Robert Hopps, an IT manager at insurance company Safeco, spoke at VMworld about his company's deployment of VMware as a disaster recovery approach for a large IT operation that includes some 1,600 servers. After his talk, Hopps was asked about his view on competing virtualisation products.

"We like VMware, it's definitely meeting our needs right now," said Hopps, adding that he will remain "tool agnostic," and will continue to examine rival products.

Nicholas Biggestaff, a Unix systems administrator at the University of Missouri, said he likes VMware too. But he added that he would consider XenSource, whose annual support costs are about one-third as much as VMware's. "It's cheap enough that it's worth looking at," he said.

Enterprise VMware users such as Dennis Robinson, a technical infrastructure manager at Genex Services, a medical management firm, said VMware is well ahead of its competitors. "Microsoft is going to want to compete and so is Xen. Right now, it doesn't look like they can," said Robinson.

His company is piloting VMware in anticipation of a server consolidation project next year, but he said he plans to "do a little bit of a bake-off" between VMware and Microsoft before a final decision is made.

Raghu Raghuram, vice president of platform products at VMware, said rivals are helping to expand interest in virtualisation -- and in his company. Toward that end, the vendor wants its annual conference to be seen as an industry event.

"All said and done, this is still a young industry," said Raghuram. "We see this as a place were customers need to get educated about virtualisation."

Gartner analyst Carl Claunch said that VMware's future growth will be with management and configuration software, as well as tools that control functionality -- not the runtime hypervisor.

VMware's approach is to "build this momentum around virtualisation -- even if some of it's from Xen and [Microsoft's] Virtual Server -- and get control of configuration and management, the part where the money is in the enterprise," said Claunch.

Among those on the trade show floor yesterday was Jay Haskins, a systems engineer at Holland America Line. The cruise line has a very good reason to consider virtualisation: Space for servers onboard a ship is limited.

Holland America line wants to consolidate its servers and is testing VMware, said Haskins. He also stopped by the XenSource booth. Asked about VMware's decision to allow its competitors to display their wares, he grinned and said it was a good thing "because you can at least have other options."