What a difference one year makes. Last year, at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, known as WinHEC, 64-bit technology and Longhorn client and server were all the rage.
But at this year's hardware event, taking place this week in Seattle, look for virtualization technology to steal the show.
Microsoft is expected to give top billing to the newest trial versions of Vista and Longhorn server, with a special focus on the hardware that enhances server virtualization softwarer.
Other virtualization news will likely include updates on Microsoft's own hypervisor -- code-named Viridian – and on some of the company's virtual management tools.
Chip makers will be joining the chorus, showing off virtualization hardware capabilities built into their processors.
Advanced Micro Devices Inc. will demonstrate Microsoft Virtual Server enabled with an AMD virtualization processor. AMDV (formerly called Pacifica) is AMD's virtualization firmware technology that works by adding commands to extend the basic instruction set of the hardware so it can communicate with virtualization software more efficiently, said Margaret Lewis, commercial software strategist at AMD in Sunnyvale, Calif.
"The extensions take away some of the overhead and allow for the software to spoof this environment more simply," she said.
Lewis said the firmware capabilities may not necessarily translate into immediate boosts in software performance. It could take some time before software enhancements can really take advantage of what these new chips have to offer, she added.
"The software has to write to it and figure out how it will use it effectively," Lewis said. "It's hard to say right out of the gate how much better it is going to be. We're at an early stage. By the time we get to Longhorn, it will be clear," she said. Longhorn server is not expected until late 2007.
Experts said they believe Microsoft needs to get its virtualization story into shape this year, or it will risk losing ground in this burgeoning market. Some question whether it is even possible for Microsoft to catch up with market leader VMware Inc.
"Microsoft has clearly stated their main efforts are now on Viridian, which won't appear for a couple of years," said Alessandro Perilli, an IT security expert and virtualization analyst.
"The next and last planned update of Virtual Server, actually in beta, isn't offering new features that will worry VMware," Perilli said. "Microsoft will stay behind the competition for at least another two years, unless something radically changes in [its] strategy."
Microsoft has already answered one question that's been on the minds of IT administrators who oversee or advise on the purchase of new hardware. The company finally offered some guidance last week on hardware requirements to run Vista. Minimum requirements include an 800 MHz processor, 512 MB of memory and a graphics card that can run DirectX 9 graphics. Computers optimized for premium performance on the OS can be 32-bit or 64-bit, but they will require a 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of main memory, 128 MB of memory and a graphics card that supports Vista's new graphics interface, called Windows Aero.