VMware vSphere vs. Microsoft Hyper-V: Which is cheaper?

They’re time-honored questions: Is Hyper-V cheaper than vSphere? Does vSphere still have more advanced features? The answers may surprise you.

Conventional wisdom says that Microsoft’s Hyper-V is cheaper than VMware’s vSphere across the board, although vSphere...

boasts more advanced features. But, depending on the size of the shop and the type of workload being virtualized, neither of these statements may be true.

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Comparing free offerings
While both vendors offer free, standalone hypervisors for download, they both have their limitations. The VMware vSphere hypervisor is free for single-host workload consolidation, which does not include live migration or any other advanced features.

Hyper-V Server (now available in a 2012 edition), consists of a stripped-down codebase that contains only the Windows Hypervisor, Windows Server driver model, and virtualization components. The standalone hypervisor contains all of the same features of the Windows OS-based Hyper-V, including Live Migration, but has limited use scenarios in Windows environments, according to Microsoft’s website.  Suggested uses are for Linux, VDI and test / dev.

Starting small: Low-end list pricing and factoring in the OS
VMware’s entry-level vSphere starter kits cost less than the Windows licenses typically used to stand up a Hyper-V environment. For example, VMware’s vSphere Essentials Plus Kit, which covers three hosts with two processors each and includes High Availability (HA), vMotion and the VMware Data Recovery backup utility. It is designed with 20 VMs in mind, but users can run as many VMs as vRAM allows -- up to a 192 GB limit. It’s priced at $5,619 including one year of production support.

Meanwhile, IT shops have the option to purchase three types of Windows 2008 R2 operating system (OS) licenses from Microsoft. Standard edition, priced under the Open License Program (OLP) at $711 per server, comes with one VM entitlement, and three servers licensed at the Standard level would allow for only three VMs. The Enterprise OS comes with four VMs, so three hosts licensed with Enterprise edition would yield 12 VMs.

Based on OLP list prices, a customer could purchase more Enterprise OS licenses to get to 20 VMs, but this would make little sense cost-wise (It would require five licenses, two of them redundant, which start at $2310 each.) and would limit the user to 20 VMs.

The most likely scenario is that a customer would purchase Windows Datacenter edition, which allows for unlimited VMs. OLP list pricing starts at $2,357 per processor ($3,535 with Software Assurance). At six total processors in the cluster, the licenses would add up to $14,142 for the Datacenter edition without Software Assurance and $21,210 with SA. But it’s a safe bet that many of the businesses that would purchase VMware acceleration kits are also Microsoft shops.

Adding 20 VMs’ worth of Windows Standard OS licenses to the VMware Essentials Plus Acceleration Kit raises the total cost to $19,839, while the Hyper-V cost remains the same with Microsoft’s Datacenter licenses; “unlimited VMs” means users don’t have to license any VMs running on top of the OS.

Table 1

There’s arguably more bang for the buck with Hyper-V at the low end: unlimited VMs vs. resources limited by vRAM, and the ability to scale out vs. the VMware kit, which is only available for three hosts.

While VMware offers advanced features (e.g., Hyper-V doesn’t have like Fault Tolerance and Storage vMotion in the upper echelons of its price model), the Essentials Plus license does not include such features.

These low-end virtualization comparisons also assume that cost-conscious shops would use a free tool -- such as Hyper-V Manager, Failover Cluster Manager or one of several free third-party Hyper-V GUIs -- on the market to manage VMs on a small number of hosts.

Scaling up: List prices for more hosts, guests and VM management
IT pros used to be able to get standalone version of Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2008 to manage significant numbers of virtualized hosts for a list price of $529. With System Center 2012, customers that want to get SCVMM 2012 for more than two operating system environments (OSEs) per host have to buy the System Center suite at the Datacenter level for a list price of $3,607, which covers two processors. 

On the VMware side, companies still have the option to buy one instance of vCenter standalone for $4,995 plus Support and Subscription (SnS) entitlements, and skip the rest of the management bells and whistles.

In an environment with 15 dual-socket hosts and 150 VMs, VMware’s Standard edition licenses at $995 per processor would cost $29,850. Add in vCenter at $4,995, plus one year of production support for both, and the total cost is $45,784. Factor in 150 Windows Standard licenses and the total price of the environment jumps to $152,434.

At numbers above 99 servers, however, it’s more economical to buy Windows Datacenter licenses for VMs, too, experts say. Thirty processors of Windows Datacenter would be $70,710 without SA; added to $45,784, the total would be $116,494.*

On the Microsoft side, 30 processors’ worth of Windows Datacenter licenses works out to $70,710 without SA. Thirty processors’ worth of the System Center suite would cost $54,105, and the total cost of Microsoft’s OS and virtualization-management licenses would be $124,815 -- a good distance from what would have been the previous list price of $71,239 with standalone SCVMM 2008. With SA, the total list price would be $160,155.

Table 2

For a 500-VM, 34-host environment with dual-socket hosts (which assumes a very attainable 15:1 consolidation ratio for both hypervisors), vSphere Standard licenses would cost $95,868 with one year of production support for both vSphere and vCenter; vSphere Enterprise would cost $250,636 assuming the same parameters; and Enterprise Plus would come in at $303,336.

Given that larger environments are more likely to have mixed OSes, assume that half those VMs are licensed with Windows. The Windows Standard licensing cost raises the total price to $273,618 for Standard, $428,386 for Enterprise and $481,086 with Enterprise Plus. Windows Datacenter would bring the totals to $176,006, $330,774 and $383,474, respectively.*

Windows Datacenter licenses with SA would total $160,276, yielding unlimited VMs along with unlimited support for memory and CPU resources. By contrast, VMware’s Standard license would carry a vRAM allotment of 2.1 TB, or 4.35 GB per VM if divided evenly; Enterprise licensees would be entitled to a vRAM pool of 4.3 TB, or an average of 8.7 GB per VM; Enterprise Plus licenses would carry a vRAM pool of 6.5 TB, for an average of about 13 GB per VM.

Add in the Microsoft System Center cost, however, and price comparisons are a mixed bag. For 68 processors of System Center Datacenter, the price would be $122,638, which, added to the host OS license cost, would total $282,914 without SA. With SA, the total list price would be $363,018.

There is also an Enrollment for Core Infrastructure (ECI) option, which bundles in both Windows OS and System Center licenses for a list price of $5,056 per processor; under this licensing scheme the total cost would be $343,808.

Table 3

VMware vs. Microsoft: Pricing wars

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Here, Microsoft points out that customers get the equivalent of VMware’s full management suite, including things like vCloud Director and vCenter Operations, for less than the cost of VMware’s high-end virtualization licenses. VMware, in turn, points out in a blog post that Microsoft’s hypervisor capabilities in Windows 2008 R2 SP1 most closely match that of its Standard license level, which would make that a fairer price comparison.

VM density and TCO
VM density per host, while still a factor for evaluation between the two virtualization platforms, doesn’t make quite as big a difference as it did in releases of Hyper-V before Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 (SP1) in 2010, which introduced the Dynamic Memory feature.

There are differences between Dynamic Memory and VMware’s Memory Overcommit, but for the average enterprise IT shop that runs Hyper-V, Dynamic Memory has meant a boost in consolidation ratios over previous versions. Mileage varies by workload, but some users report between 35:1 and 50:1 consolidation ratios on Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 hosts with 96 GB of RAM.

For those who want to push their environments to the highest levels of efficiency or run high-performance mission-critical workloads, however, vSphere 5 is still the best bet because of its greater scalability and memory overcommit.

When Windows Server 2012 ships later this year, the comparisons will change, again. Already out as a release candidate, it features scalability and feature updates that could make it a contender to virtualize more mission-critical apps at higher densities than with Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1.

*Information added after publication

In part two of this four part series on VMware and Microsoft, we will reveal how the list prices compare to the real world deals that some companies have negotiated. In many cases, it is a fraction of the list cost.

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com and SearchDataCenter.com. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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