Mike Neil, Microsoft’s general manager of virtualization technology, recently said that although Microsoft would ship its hypervisor software on time—180 days after Windows Server 2008 ships, which is said to be on February 27, 2008—the company would have to drop three features in order to make that date. And, according to a statement Neil made at the Windows Server Division Weblog, “shipping is a feature.”

I’m sorry to hear that. I know I’ve said this in print before, but the time has come to say it again: Finish the software, then ship it! Don’t ship the software, then finish it in subsequent releases with the help of unpaid software testers otherwise known as “customers.”

For those just joining us, Windows Hypervisor (code-named Viridian) will be a downloadable add-on to Server 2008, which presumably means it will be a free download. (Whether Microsoft decides to set it up so that it installs only on Enterprise or will also work on Standard remains to be seen.) When paired with Server 2008, Windows Hypervisor is intended to compete with VMware ESX Server, the industry’s gold-standard platform for virtualizing the server infrastructure. No, make that the rhodium standard, the palladium standard, or the iridium standard—the fact is that VMware owns that market niche lock, stock, and barrelhead.

ESX Server is a terrific tool. It’s reliable and lets the customer get the most out of his or her disk, memory, NIC, and CPU hardware. With an add-on, it actually lets you run any number of virtual machines (VMs) on a bunch of physical machines, while letting any VM jump from one physical server to another. This tool, called VMotion, lets a data center manager reshuffle VMs on a minute-by-minute basis to ensure that he or she is getting the maximum throughput out of the organization’s hardware investment. I know of very few organizations committed to VMware ESX that aren’t using VMotion—which leads to the puzzling aspect of Microsoft’s strategy.

My puzzlement stems from the fact that Windows Hypervisor was set to include a feature called Live Migration, which basically did what VMotion does. However, Microsoft decided to omit that feature in the version of Windows Hypervisor that will ship in late August 2008 in favor of another feature—that’s right, the “feature” of shipping on time.

Just what is the benefit, to the buyer or the seller, of shipping this product on time? It’s not as if Microsoft needs to start offering a VM manager; the company already has a fairly good one in Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1. I mean, it ain’t ESX Server, but it ain’t bad, and it’s free. And I can’t help noticing that it has the virtue of having already shipped. Clearly, free functionality is good, and being available (that is, shipped) isn’t everything, as evidenced by the fact that more people use VMware’s ESX Server than Microsoft’s Virtual Server. If Microsoft wants to steal VMware’s customers, it seems pretty clear that it needs to offer a VM manager that challenges ESX Server’s major points. VMotion is, without doubt, one of those points. It’s also clear that unless an asteroid hits VMware headquarters and removes the company from competition, Microsoft intends to offer Live Migration eventually. It’s hard to imagine a current ESX Server customer looking at a Live Migration-less version of Windows Hypervisor and saying, “Hey, we’ve already paid for ESX Server with VMotion, and it already does what we want, but heck, let’s jump on that early Windows Hypervisor now so we’ll be ready when Live Migration appears.”

Perhaps Microsoft believes that the majority of people who could benefit from an ESX Server-quality VM manager haven’t yet adopted any VM technology, and so being quick out of the gate with a lesser-value but lower-cost alternative will let Microsoft soak up some of those new customers. I certainly hope so, because the only reasonable alternative—that Microsoft wants to get people using Windows Hypervisor in the real world so that Redmond can shake out its bugs—is a grim one to contemplate.