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Virtualization face-off: The case for Hyper-V

Microsoft's Hyper-V, will enter the virtualization ring as a relative underdog. But Hyper-V's price and better hardware compatibility poise it to compete with VMware and Xen.

It's not always easy to defend an underdog, especially when they're going up against the might of a large corporation that dominates its marketplace. And it's not often that Microsoft is considered the underdog. Microsoft's upcoming Hyper-V and associated management tools will take on VMware and the rest of the market and in doing so will very likely change users' expectations for virtualization products.

Reasons for Hyper-V
So what's so great about Hyper-V? Perhaps the most obvious answer is price. Microsoft will be providing its new hypervisor at very little cost and it will be a few clicks and a reboot away for the vast majority of new server deployments (64-bit systems that run Windows Server 2008.) Hyper-V supports clustering for high availability (HA), integration with Volume Shadow Services (VSS) for performing online backups, simple administration tools for creating and managing virtual machines (VMs), a minimal surface area for the hypervisor, embedded device support and security features for controlling the environment. While it supports both Windows and Linux operating systems, the Microsoft hypervisor supports all hardware and device drivers that are compatible with Windows Server 2008. Hyper-V supports 32-bit and 64-bit VMs, multiple virtual CPUs and storage and network settings that should accommodate just about any business application.

All of this is well and good, but what happens after the hypervisor is commoditized? We're already seeing this: The explosion in number of VMs that IT organizations must support has raised concerns over virtual environment management. Enter Microsoft's System Center suite of management tools, particularly System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM). These utilities will help organizations handle the chores of capacity planning, choosing virtualization candidates, deciding on target host servers and monitoring performance. You can also perform physical-to-virtual (P2V) conversions and allow authorized users to access a self-service portal to manage their own deployments (and virtual-to-virtual conversions can be done as well, if you're migrating platforms.) Future versions of SCVMM will support management of XEN and VMware-based environments.

System Center Operations Manager and System Center Configuration Manager fill in some much needed gaps in monitoring and maintaining both physical machines and virtual ones. Of course, you don't have to rely on Microsoft for management tools. If you want to roll in your own management tools, Hyper-V can be automated using the familiar Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) standard or through the use of Windows PowerShell. Numerous third-party virtualization management solutions now or soon will offer support for Hyper-V. In addition to server virtualization, Microsoft also has solutions for presentation virtualization (courtesy of Windows Terminal Services) and Microsoft SoftGrid Application Virtualization.

Why Hyper-V is better
With all of this in mind, let's look at the main competition. VMware's architecture limits the number and types of hardware on which you can run ESX Server. The architecture is aging and not very gracefully. VMware has many different products and technologies, but it's not easy for IT managers to figure out what they want or need. Each feature can be costly, and integration between them seems to be minimal. Many of these features are out of reach of the many small- and mid-sized organizations out there. Overall, VMware is highly focused on virtualization, but administrators are going to want complete solutions for the entire environment.

In order to compete successfully, VMware will have to lower pricing and it will have to add more robust, integrated management tools. These challenges are far from insurmountable, but it won't be easy. The Xen camp will need to provide more robust management tools along with the levels of enterprise support that IT organizations require. Overall, the winner in the marketplace will have the best solution for hosting VMs and addressing management issues. Microsoft Hyper-V (even in its initial version) and the System Center suite of tools are well-positioned to meet those needs.

The bottom line: The hypervisor is only one portion of the overall virtualization equation and it is becoming a smaller part. Microsoft will dramatically lower the barrier for entry by providing an inexpensive hypervisor and the tools to manage it. I expect Microsoft to significantly increase overall virtualization adoption and simplify the entire management life cycle. If they do their jobs right, people won't care much about which hypervisor they choose. May the best technology win!

Microsoft's virtualization challenges
Hyper-V has its advantages, but it's not without its shortcomings. In its initial version, Hyper-V won't support live migration of a VM between host servers and will not support the hot-addition of hardware. These features would be useful but are an unlikely deal-breaker for most production deployments. Another potential issue is that current versions of System Center products are Windows-focused. For the vast majority of IT environments, this makes sense, but it can be an issue for Linux/Unix shops.

While it's too early to compare performance numbers, Hyper-V looks like it will provide at least the same levels of value as those from VMware and Xen (keep in mind that physical memory is cheap, VMware licenses are not.) Finally, Microsoft will have to face the inertia of a fairly large installed base of competing products (isn't that a deliciously ironic twist?). VMware admittedly dominates the Enterprise virtualization space, and numerous third-party vendors have tailored their solutions for ESX Server. These issues are far from insurmountable, but the ripple effects of the shake-up will likely catch a lot of IT environments off-guard. If nothing else, this will be a fun battle to watch.

About the author: Anil Desai is a Microsoft MVP and a Microsoft Certified Professional with numerous credentials including MCITP, MCSE, MCSD, and MCDBA. He is the author or coauthor of nearly 20 technical books, including several study guides for Microsoft Certifications.

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