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Microsoft Virtual Server flawed, not broken, users say

Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 may have its shortcomings, but its familiar user interface and "good enough" performance are enough to keep some Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 early adopters from defecting to VMware. And you can't beat the price.

Despite numerous well-documented shortcomings, the number of IT shops running Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 (MSVS) continues to rise. And, so far, relatively few of those early adopters have felt the need to move to VMware Server, much less the costly ESX Server.

In a recent readership survey by SearchServerVirtualization.com, 86% of respondents reported that they are using VMware, but 40% also indicated that they are running MSVS.

Judging from conversations with MSVS users, it seems that the same dynamics that prompted IT managers to try VMware are inspiring Microsoft shops to install MSVS: the desire to consolidate physical servers.

"Like everyone else, we had server sprawl and wanted to reduce our operating system instances on to fewer pieces of physical hardware," said Kevin Hsieh, Systems Administrator II for Bay Alarm Company. The Pacheco, CA.-based business has about 600 employees, a central data center and eleven branch offices, making it the largest privately held alarm and security company in the US.

About four months ago, Hsieh downloaded and installed Microsoft Virtual Server – not VMware -- because "it was so easy to get started" and because it was free. "First it was a thousand dollars, then it was $200, then it was free, so I downloaded it and found, 'Hey, this is pretty easy.'"

Since then, Hsieh has successfully installed virtualization on to five physical hosts running about 30 guests between them, including domain controllers, file servers, SQL Server and soon, Exchange 2003. He said his goal is "to virtualize everything that doesn't require hardware connectivity," for example, a connection to an obscure optical jukebox.

Fewer servers cut costs

Similarly, Paul Laudenslager, owner and CEO of Virginia Internet Services in Fredericksburg, Va., began using MSVS to lower the number of physical servers needed to run his hosting business. "Bandwidth and disk space aren't at a premium anymore," he said. "It's the cabinet space."

An all-Microsoft shop, Laudenslager has thus far been relatively pleased with the performance he gets from MSVS. He has two hosts running Microsoft Virtual Server, with everything from DNS, mail servers, Web servers and SQL Server 2003 – "and that's all on the same box."

That's fairly typical of most small shops, said Chris Wolf, senior analyst with the Burton Group and author of Virtualization: From the Desktop to the Enterprise. "If [you] have just a few test systems, you're not going to see much of a difference in performance," he said, between MSVS and VMware. But systems that start to max out their physical RAM might not get the performance from MSVS that they would with VMware, whose memory management feature moves underutilized memory to the hard disk, freeing up RAM for other busy virtual machines.

Virginia Internet Services' Laudenslager did recently install VMware Server to run the open source MailCleaner antispam and antivirus filtering software, and thanks to VMware's support for VirtualSMP, he now gets better performance than he did on MSVS. "[MSVS] works great as long as the application doesn't require more than one CPU," he said.

The Microsoft comfort factor

But the performance kick he gets from VMware does come at a price: having to learn an unfamiliar new operating system. "I wish I were more of a Linux person," Laudenslager said about having to administer his Linux-based VMware Server. Especially when it comes to setting up security policies, "I feel I could do a better job with Windows."

At the same time, VMware features like VMotion, which allows users to non-disruptively move virtual machines between physical hosts, don't have much appeal in Hsieh's small shop. "That would be nice to have, but it's not worth it to me to spend the money," he said. Thanks to an iSCSI SAN from EqualLogic Inc., which hosts all his boot and VM images, Hsieh can move virtual machines "in 10 to 15 minutes."

Then, there are a few things that MSVS flat out does better than VMware. Hardware compatibility, for one thing, said Anil Desai, an independent consultant in Austin, Texas. VMware has done a good job expanding an extensive hardware compatibility list, but it can't compare with the 20,000 to 30,000 devices supported by MSVS's underlying Windows Server 2003 platform, Desai said.

If you buy contemporary hardware from tier-one OEMs, hardware compatibility shouldn't be much of an issue for most VMware shops, said Andrew Kutz, an operating systems specialist for the University of Texas, which runs VMware. But, "if you're a white box shop that builds all your own stuff, you're going to run in to some problems," he said.

And then there's the Microsoft advantage, which even paying VMware ESX customers like Kutz can't get around: technical support. "Microsoft support is a thousand times better than VMware's," he said. "I've had a support ticket out with VMware for two months now that they still haven't fixed."

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