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Server virtualization roadmaps push the hypervisor envelope

Server virtualization is a mature technology, but vendors say there are still new features to come.

Server virtualization roadmaps show vendors still have tricks up their sleeve for the hypervisor, despite the maturity of the technology.

It is clear that differentiation and competition are still vibrantly active in the server virtualization market. Microsoft's Hyper-V gained about 5% market share on VMware Inc.'s vSphere last year, according to IDC, a tech industry analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass. VMware remains the 800-pound gorilla of server virtualization, with a 56.8% share of the market, but at least some customers have had their heads turned by other offerings as competitors continue to improve.

One such customer is Chris Akeroyd, director of IT infrastructure for University Medical Center Health System, headquartered in Lubbock, Texas. The company has used VMware for about nine years, but Hyper-V has begun to take over its infrastructure. It has spread from the test/dev tier into tier-two and tier-three applications; vSphere is now only used for tier-one apps and mostly managed through Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

"It's a lot easier, personnel-wise, for training, to manage a Hyper-V environment than a VMware environment," Akeroyd said, because his IT staff is more familiar and comfortable with Microsoft's management tools.

This is the kind of criteria customers use to make decisions today, said Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Mark Bowker, rather than finer-grained features left on various hypervisors' roadmaps.

For example, while all the major server virtualization players -- VMware, Microsoft, Citrix, IBM and Red Hat -- claim that their hypervisor performs best, customers aren't necessarily testing those limits anymore, Bowker said.

"Stuff like how many virtual CPUs [the product can] support, memory, speed, capacity, performance -- that stuff has raced ahead of where most of the adoption is today," Bowker said.

Virtualization roadmaps dig deep to support cloud workloads

Still, for the forward-thinking, server virtualization vendors will serve up more features in the future, particularly for new cloud workloads.

Stuff like, how many virtual CPUs can you support, memory, speed, capacity, performance -- that stuff has raced ahead of where most of the adoption is today.

Mark Bowker,
analyst with ESG

Microsoft, for example, introduced what it calls generation 2 virtual machines with Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V, and they're far from done brushing up this technology, officials said.

So-called generation 1 VMs, in Microsoft parlance, were built with backward-compatibility in mind, and thus are modeled on now-outdated types of hardware instructions, according to Jeff Woolsey, principal program manager for Windows Server and System Center at Microsoft.

"Any virtual machine we've shipped in the past … emulates and looks like older hardware. … It looks like a traditional 440BX motherboard from Intel," he said.

Generation 2 VMs, on the other hand, have completely synthetic device drivers, which Woolsey said will allow for easier hot-plugging of things like memory that better suit highly mobile cloud workloads; these VMs also sport a different BIOS process, which he said is more secure.

The Linux kernel's KVM is also being worked on, with an eye toward hot-pluggable hardware accessed via virtualized drivers, according to Mike Day, IBM's chief virtualization architect for open systems development.

KVM is a multi-platform hypervisor, Day said, and it's getting more platform support quickly.

"When it started out, it was just x86, and it was really tied to the virtualization hardware instructions," Day said. Now, KVM supports Power, PowerPC, System/390 and ARM [chips], Day said.

Newly virtualized graphics processing units, meanwhile, are being integrated into hypervisors such as Citrix XenServer to better support 3-D and other high-resolution graphics in virtual desktop environments. XenServer, which was transferred from Citrix last year to the Linux Foundation for further development, also has a rewrite on its roadmap so that its domain-zero component will become 64-bit to better to support higher-performing, horizontally scalable workloads.

For its part, VMware is looking to integrate storage and networking functions more deeply into the hypervisor layer with its software-defined data center plans, according to Chris Wolf, VMware's chief technology officer for the Americas.

"The hypervisor's job is not just to run a VM but to enable a complete production environment," Wolf said.

According to Bowker, beefing up the hypervisor with further networking capabilities will also have an effect on security and other functions.

"There's some opportunity, if the hypervisor takes on that duty, to use it as a capture point for security introspection, performance analytics and capacity planning," he said.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchCloudComputing. Write to her at or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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Will these server virtualization roadmap items affect your choice of hypervisor?