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After a four-month beta run, VMware is preparing to release the full version of its Converter 3 virtualization software Jan. 29.

The Palo Alto, Calif., company, the leader in x86 server virtualization software, is releasing the full version of its product after beta testing the software since Oct. 2. The software allows automation of physical-to-virtual servers without having to shut down the physical server, as well as virtual-to-virtual conversion. The software also allows users to clone machines from a remote console.

The race to offer better, more versatile and easier-to-use virtualization software has only increased as enterprises look to contain server sprawl, reduce the use of power in the data center and save on cooling costs. In an Aug. 31 report by Enterprise Management Associates, researchers found that deployment of virtualization is growing by about 26 percent annually.

Timothy Happychuk, regional IT director for Montreal-based Quebecor-Sun Media Group, one of Canada’s largest media companies, has been dealing with these type of issues—power, cooling, sprawl—for years, and he first started looking at various virtualization tools about three years ago.

Part of the problem at Quebecor-Sun is that IT has been saddled with legacy systems that still run mission-critical functions, such as taking video and news feeds from satellites for the company’s newsrooms.

The problems with migrating some of this proprietary software off older servers to more modern servers–a 16-way IBM server, for example–is that it used to take nearly a month to physically convert the applications to a virtual machine, Happychuk said.

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For the last four months, Happychuk and his IT staff have been involved in the beta testing of the Converter 3 software, and he said he’s been able to speed up virtualization from one machine a month to running several conversions a day.

“The first night we used the software, we targeted six systems to migrate at the same time, and we launched the application and watched it go to work,” Happychuk told eWEEK. “No one was more shocked than me the first time it worked.”

VMware is looking to replicate this type of success elsewhere.

While VMware has shown that it will remain the market leader in x86 virtualization software for some time, competitors like Virtual Iron and vendors using the open-source virtualization hypervisor Xen have started to offer lower-cost alternatives.

The full Convert 3 software being released Jan. 29 will come in two versions—both free. The Converter Starter edition is geared toward SMBs (small and midsize businesses) and can perform one conversion at a time.

The Enterprise addition can perform multiple conversions, like the type of virtual migrations Happychuk experimented with at Quebecor-Sun, and comes free for those companies that have a subscription to VMware’s VirtualCenter Management Server, said Ben Matheson, VMware’s director of product management and marketing.

The plan to offer the software for free is twofold, according to Matheson. The first is to get more companies familiar with virtualization, especially the products made by VMware. The second is the hope that once the companies use the products, they will want to expand into VMware’s high-end software offerings.

“This tool is totally and fully focused on customer feedback,” Matheson said. “We are the market leader in physical-to-virtual tools and usability performance and reliability. We are continuing to be focused on customer concerns and reliability and making a scalable product.”

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To that end, Matheson said the company will promote the Converter 3 as a faster way to perform virtualization tasks within the data center, as well as a tool that allows IT administrators the ability to use automation to clone machines.

In addition, the VMware has expanded its software support to include the 32- and 64-bit versions of Microsoft Windows XP and Server 2003, as well as Windows 2000 and Windows NT 4 SP4+.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said 2007 will shape up as an interesting year for VMware as other virtualization software makers, such as Virtual Iron, Microsoft with its Virtual Server software and IBM with the virtualization capabilities in its Power 5 processor, look to chip away at the x86 market.

King said VMware has been able to distinguish itself, so far, from these other companies by offering products that are easier to use and manage.

“It’s a very interesting product that they have developed for their users,” King said. “They have really managed to keep the conversation [around virtualization] going and I think that’s why they have proved themselves superior all year long.”

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