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Hyper-V, VMware users shrug off Microsoft Linux drivers

On the surface, Microsoft's move to open-source its Hyper-V Linux drivers seems major, but its real-world impact isn't so significant.

When Microsoft open sourced its Linux drivers for Hyper-V under the GNU General Public License this week, Linux and open source aficionados' jaws dropped. But in virtualization circles – even among some Hyper-V users – the news was met with much less surprise or enthusiasm.

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Dan Morris, a senior systems engineer at WhiteWater West Industries, a water park manufacturer, manages a two-node Hyper-V cluster with 12 guests and has no need for the Linux drivers. "The closest we get to anything weird [i.e., non-Microsoft] is Lotus Notes and Domino, and even those run on Windows Server 2003," he said. Like many small and medium-sized businesses that have adopted Hyper-V, Linux is nowhere to be found in the Richmond, British Columbia, data center.

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Gordon Haff,
principal analystIlluminata Inc.
That's fairly typical, said Gordon Haff, a principal analyst at Illuminata Inc. "Windows and Linux have different administrative models," he said. "There aren't that many systems running a mixed-OS environment on a single physical server" in production. "Despite all the talk of dynamic IT, most IT organizations really aren't there yet."

Haff acknowledged that the availability of the Linux drivers makes it easier for Hyper-V users to incorporate Linux into their environments. And when the drivers make it into the mainline Linux kernel 2.6.32 this December, users will no longer have to manually install drivers in to their Linux VMs, as they do with VMware. That, in turn, could sway IT managers' decisions in favor or Hyper-V.

"The typical user for this is the IT shop that's primarily a Windows shop, but that is using Linux for some things," Haff said. "This makes it easier and better for them to just use Microsoft [Hyper-V]."

Luring VMware users to Hyper-V?
But at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., where about 10% of 250 servers run Linux, the promise of not having to manually install drivers in Linux guests isn't enough to lure the university from VMware, said Adrian Jane, the infrastructure and operations manager.

"It's not a case of 'This is only way you can get Linux working with these kernel-mode drivers,'" said Jane. "With VMware, it's a pain, but we use templates so you really only have to do it once." Furthermore, drivers for the main Linux distros like Red Hat, CentOS and Ubuntu are readily available from VMware's website, he said.

Jane did say he would evaluate Hyper-V next year, as he prepares for the university's servers to come off lease in 2011. When comparing Hyper-V against VMware, functionality will be his main criteria, followed by performance. "So far, from a technical standpoint, I haven't seen anything that makes me think, 'Oh, I have to have Hyper-V," Jane said. But, he added, "Microsoft has historically been very good at catching up."

It's also unclear how quickly Microsoft's code donation will bear fruit. Practically speaking, mutual-support agreements that Microsoft signed with Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. mean that the necessary drivers for running SUSE or Red Hat are already available, said Chris Wolf, a senior analyst at Burton Group.

For other Linux distributions to take advantage of the drivers, maintainers will either need to backport the drivers in to the current distribution, or users will have to wait for the next version that relies on the new kernel.

"We could easily be talking beyond a year before we see the results of this announcement," Wolf said.

Toward a driver library
For most virtualization users, a more meaningful contribution on the part of the vendors would be a generic driver library that all vendors could contribute to, Wolf said. "Long term, a standards-based project could control the driver libraries" and supply a framework that would work with all the major hypervisor platforms, he said. That would be especially useful in the context of cloud computing.

"Ideally, I want a cloud provider that supports any hypervisor without having to do a migration," Wolf said.

Standards efforts around virtualization are nascent, Wolf said. The Open Virtualization Format helps," he said. Add to that better transparency between the vendors' virtual disk formats, plus the afore-mentioned generic driver libraries, "would really crack it open," he said.

In the meantime, the availability of the Hyper-V Linux drivers in the mainline kernel could have another unintended consequence. "It could really help grow the market for Linux virtual appliances," he said. And that, in turn, could help the biggest virtual appliance vendor out there: VMware.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director.

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