Expert Q&A

How Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V is changing the virtualization market

Over the past year, we've seen Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V take its position as a serious contender to VMware products. New improvements have caught the attention of many IT pros, and now businesses are taking note. The question is, will Microsoft's Hyper-V ever catch VMware Inc.'s vSphere the longtime market leader in server virtualization? With that in mind, I asked author and Microsoft MVP Aidan Finn for his unfiltered (and admittedly biased) opinion on Microsoft's place in the virtualization market. Finn is the co-author -- along with Patrick Lownds, Michel Luescher and Damian Flynn -- of the upcoming book

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Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Installation and Configuration Guide.

More than a year ago, many analysts were speculating that Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V would present the first serious challenge to VMware. Where do you see the Hyper-V versus VMware comparison today? Were those analysts correct?

Aidan Finn: In my opinion, the analysts were correct. We had a good idea where Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V was going after Build in 2012. We didn't know the eventual host/virtual machine/cluster scalability or all the features, but it looked really competitive. Features such as SMB 3.0 storage, shared-nothing live migration, network virtualization and virtual Fibre Channel/SR-IOV without preventing Live Migration were hugely important, giving us things that VMware couldn't. Improvements in clustering, such as cluster-aware updating or simplified Cluster Shared Volumes management reduce the cost of ownership.

You just can't get around the fact that Hyper-V is free and comes with all the features and scalability in every edition.

Aidan Finn,
Microsoft MVP

Thanks to The Great Big Hyper-V Survey, we know that the primary reason businesses to want to virtualize is flexibility. We get unparalleled flexibility with Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V; I can live migrate a virtual machine (VM) from a nonclustered host to another, and then onto a cluster, and then to a second cluster, and then to a different subnet, all without downtime to the VM's services. I have flexibility in how I design my hosts, networking and storage. This means Hyper-V makes life easy.

Microsoft lived up to the promises and more. VMware's hope that this was a vaporware release was dashed on the rocks. A very passionate group of people in Microsoft delivered a credible and powerful product that does things that no other virtualization platform has been able to do. Even happy VMware customers need to thank Microsoft; vSphere 5.1 included several new features in VMware's effort to compete with Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V.

I believe Windows Server 2012 is a better product than vSphere at this point, but I am a little biased. At worst, Hyper-V is on par with VMware in terms of virtualization, but Hyper-V is more than just a virtualization product. Microsoft designed Windows Server 2012 to be a cloud operating system.

Will we eventually look back at Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V as the "turning point," where Microsoft got a leg up on VMware?

Finn: I think so. History shows us that we should never bet against Microsoft when it comes to business software. Where are OS/2, NetWare, Lotus Domino and SmartSuite now? I don't think VMware will disappear completely. They make great virtualization software and they have a huge footprint. But, we are starting to see a change.

I'm seeing it locally where Hyper-V is beating VMware in competition when it is given a fair chance. I heard from numerous large companies at the U.K. launch of Windows Server 2012 that said they considered Hyper-V ready. I'm seeing story after story of companies making the switch from VMware.

VMware still has a strong hold on the current market, and it could be some time before many shops are ready to move away from what they're familiar with. What factor(s) do you think will ultimately spur organizations to move toward Hyper-V and away from VMware?

Finn: I don't pay too much attention to market share; I'm more interested in what's happening in competition now. Which product are organizations deploying more right now?

It starts with licensing. You just can't get around the fact that Hyper-V is free and comes with all the features and scalability in every edition. Some "vFanboys" will always say it's not free, but I'd love to audit the licensing at their sites. The truth is that when you license Windows Server VMs correctly, you have a decision to make: Do I use the license that I've paid for and install Windows Server on the host to enable Hyper-V, or do I pay more for another virtualization product that lacks similar features unless I pay for a more expensive license?

But let's get beyond that for the moment. Why does a business have IT? IT provides services. Everything in System Center and Hyper-V is designed to deliver, manage and control the quality of services, either in straight-up virtualization or via a cloud. I just don't see that in the loosely coupled framework of VMware products.

I think we'll see the following changes:

  1. New deployments will start leaning toward Hyper-V.
  2. Small and medium-sized businesses will start migrating to Hyper-V.
  3. Larger enterprises will evaluate Hyper-V, start deploying some workloads to it, and eventually make the move.

We've seen the rhetoric over pricing and feature sets heat up between VMware and Microsoft in recent months. What advice would you have for customers struggling to accurately compare the two? Do you find it hard to weigh the competing claims of which costs less and which performs better at a particular task/workload?

Finn: It's difficult to compare real-world acquisition pricing unless you're dealing with sales reps from both companies. Both sides have public pricing, but that public pricing rarely applies. However, no matter how you look at vSphere pricing, it'll always cost more than free.

We can't just consider virtualization by itself. I started working on VMware. I was happy until I wanted to know what was going on with the services that I was hosting. I made the switch to Hyper-V because System Center gave me lower cost of ownership and the ability to offer a better service. Microsoft provides an end-to-end, network-to-client perspective to enterprise management and cloud solution in System Center. I can't make heads or tails of VMware's confusing offerings, other than the fact that it requires lots of additional licensing, and there are lots of disconnected parts that will require lots of work to use together. I've sat through VMware briefings on their products and I find myself confused within minutes, wondering if I've woken up in a Monty Python sketch.

What do you expect to see from Microsoft in 2013 on the server virtualization front?

Finn: We can expect the release of Service Pack 1 for System Center 2012 in early 2013. This will give System Center 2012 support for managing Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 (and Hyper-V Server 2012). This will be a huge deal. Microsoft describes Windows Server 2012 as being 'built from the cloud up.' It includes numerous cloud features, such as resource metering, network virtualization (software-defined networking) and private virtual LANs that will be lit up by System Center SP1. Cloud service providers, be they hosting companies or large enterprise data centers, will be able to deploy clouds based on Windows Server and System Center that offer all the traits of the cloud.

We already know that we'll be able to migrate offline VMs to and from Windows Azure, Microsoft's public cloud. I suspect we'll see more of this hybrid cloud model. Microsoft has made huge investments in those data centers, and we should expect to see more options for service owners to pick and choose where they deploy their applications.

Where will Microsoft have to evolve or improve to keep pace with VMware or wrestle away more of the market share? What challenges does it still face?

Finn: The biggest challenge right now is that VMware is the legacy incumbent. VMware has built up a huge market presence over the last decade, while Microsoft has rapidly gone from zero to a worthy challenger. Over that time, a lot of fears and false information have flourished about Hyper-V. I still encounter people who think that there's no Live Migration in Hyper-V (Hyper-V has more live VM mobility than vSphere does now). There are some who think that Microsoft won't support Linux, even though there are more Linux distributions on the Hyper-V-supported guest OS list than there are editions/versions of Windows! I think it's going to take time to clear up a lot of this stuff so that the market becomes aware of how genuinely powerful Hyper-V really is.

VMware does have an annual release cycle. That has proven to be useful for the smaller company, allowing them to improve gradually every year. Microsoft has had a less frequent release cycle, which makes them appear slower to improve. The number of changes and new features in Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V is staggering.

Which is the right way to go? I'm sure the commentators love the VMware approach because it gives them lots to talk about. But do businesses like that approach? We know that server operating systems are slow to upgrade; are virtualization platforms the same? Is an annual upgrade too much risk and too much change too often? Is the big jump every two or three years better? I think that's a question for the IT manager or CIO to decide for themselves.

Microsoft has to get two messages out to win.

  • They need to let people know what's happened with Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012, to get beyond the usual blogosphere and user groups and reach the decision makers.
  • They have to show the decision makers how System Center makes Microsoft's offering more relevant by being a service management system instead of a virtualization management framework.

About the author
Aidan Finn, a Microsoft Valuable Professional (MVP) with the Virtual Machine expertise, has been working in IT since 1996, specializing in server/desktop management and virtualization. Currently, Finn is working as a technical sales lead for a distributor in Dublin, Ireland, specializing in Microsoft technology. He blogs on http://www.aidanfinn.com, tweets as @joe_elway and regularly presents on topics such as Hyper-V, Windows Server/desktop and System Center. Finn has also contributed to or written books, including Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V Installation And Configuration Guide, Microsoft Private Cloud Computingand Mastering Windows 7 Deployment.

This was first published in December 2012

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