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Assessing Hyper-V's benefits, limitations

Not too long ago, VMware reigned supreme in the virtualization marketplace. Since Hyper-V has stepped onto the playing field, the virtualization game has changed. We assess Hyper-V's strengths and weaknesses in this tip.

Earlier this year, the letters "ESX" were synonymous with server virtualization and VMware seemed to be the only practical game in town. It has now been a few months since a stealthy little software behemoth from the Pacific Northwest released its serious virtualization contender. And in that time, things have changed. In this tip, I'll highlight some of the post-release considerations for Hyper-V.

Hyper-V's strengths and weaknesses
Hyper-V's primary strength is probably its ready availability in the data center. If you're running Windows Server 2008 on 64-bit hardware, you're just minutes away from enabling an industrial-strength Hypervisor. Hyper-V's management tools should be familiar to anyone who manages Windows systems, and the last few months have shown that it is a stable and reliable option for the data center.

Of course, Hyper-V is not without its limitations. Virtualization experts are quick to point out that it doesn't support live migration of VMs between servers and doesn't allow administrators to over-commit memory (VMware provides both features). But, Hyper-V provides numerous options based on clustering, so building highly-available Hyper-V deployments is possible and supported. Users of this new product on the enterprise virtualization scene will need some time before completely trusting this candidate over the incumbents.

Hyper-V support policies
While Hyper-V's technology might appeal to our geekier sides, enterprises need the assurance of official support for mission-critical applications deployed within VMs. Some vendors haven't fully embraced the idea that VMs are, for most practical purposes, identical to their physical counterparts.

So where does Microsoft stand? The company has made some much-needed progress. Managing licensing offers a level of pleasure that is tantamount to getting a root canal in a Third World country. If you want the official word, you can start on Microsoft's Volume Licensing Briefs page (note the pun). The bottom line is that dozens of Microsoft's server applications and other products are supported when running on Hyper-V and other "validated" virtualization platforms. That's good news for enterprise admins and people who generally like to keep their jobs.

Recently, the company changed its much-loathed restrictions on transferring licenses between physical and virtual machines (see Microsoft improves virtualization licensing policy -- with a catch for detail and commentary). Microsoft also created a Server Virtualization Validation Program that aims to make it easier for IT decision makers to choose tested and supported products for their virtual environments. Politics aside, it's always good to have further validation of mission-critical data center components. Believe it or not, as I was writing this I received news that the first non-Microsoft Hypervisor to be validated by Microsoft is none other than VMware's ESX Server. That's good news for everyone involved, and it's a sign that VMware is willing to break down some barriers.

However, it looks like Microsoft hasn't completed our wish list. If you're not using Hyper-V, there might be some support-related caveats (the official word on these is in Support policy for Microsoft software running in non-Microsoft hardware virtualization software).

Managing machines: Virtual and physical
So if you're sold on the idea that creating partitions and virtual machines is no longer an amazing trick that can be performed by only a few vendors, the logical next question is about what really matters. The industry seems to have spoken (loudly): We need tools for managing VMs. Like physical servers, VMs have a life cycle that includes planning, deployment, security, monitoring, configuration management, reporting and retirement. "VM sprawl" is a very real problem for many organizations.

The might of Microsoft
For all its benefits, virtualization is only one part of an overall data center architecture. For the foreseeable future, we'll be dependent on OS's, applications, services, and storage and networking infrastructure. Accordingly, Hyper-V is only one part of Microsoft's overall portfolio. Apart from its desktop and server operating systems, Microsoft provides solutions for application virtualization ( Microsoft SoftGrid), presentation virtualization (Windows Server Terminal Services), desktop virtualization (new products to be announced), and an armada of server products.

Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft's System Center suite addresses some of the biggest pain points for physical and virtual management. System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) is a critical component of Microsoft's virtualization strategy. It's long overdue, but the wait will soon be over.

This package is tough for anyone to compete with. If Microsoft plays its hand right, it will allow administrators to easily integrate and manage virtualization. By itself, virtualization is no longer considered to be a complete solution.

On competition and complacence
So where does this leave all of the other companies in virtualization marketplace? Currently, there's plenty of room to out-do Microsoft on the systems management front. The distant (but important) goal of a completely fluid and self-managing data center is on the horizon, but it will take a lot of work to get there. Organizations of all sizes need monitoring, management, data protection and auditing tools. The key for solutions providers is differentiation. There are needs for very small businesses (that are often overlooked), as well as very large ones (not often early adopters). To serve these markets well, companies will need to come up with unique features and approaches to specific challenges. That's vague, I know -- but if I had the best ideas, I probably wouldn't be writing this tip right now.

With all that said, I think companies would do well to fear the might of Redmond. If you were playing poker against Microsoft, I'd highly advise you to don a hat, scarf, sunglasses, riot shield, helmet, Jason-style hockey mask and a flower (the latter is just for aesthetic purposes). It wouldn't hurt if you also had a full house approach to data center integration.

The jury is still out
With VMworld 2008 almost here, it's a good time to survey the competition. In theory, at least, pressure from other vendors should help VMware address some of its stickier points. Foremost should be discussions around price and the company's mid- to long-term strategy. Of course, you -- the knowledgeable systems administrator -- must serve as judge, jury and executioner on your virtualization rulings. If you've previously ruled out Microsoft's platform when it was in its beta stages, perhaps it's time for an appeal.

About the author: Anil Desai is an independent consultant based in Austin, TX. He specializes in evaluating, implementing, and managing IT solutions. He has worked extensively with Microsoft's Server products and the .NET development platform and has managed environments that support thousands of virtual machines. Anil is an MCITP, MCSE, MCSD, and MCDBA, and a Microsoft MVP.

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