Test Center review: Microsoft's Hyper-V does the trick

Microsoft's next-generation server virtualization solution falls short versus VMware's VI3, but has the right stuff for less demanding, Windows-centric environments

Hyper-V is finally here – almost. With the recent delivery of Release Candidate 1, Microsoft is shifting from major engineering operations mode to cross-the-i's-and-dot-the-t's mode. The majority of the Hyper-V bits, including an ever-expanding list of supported guest operating systems, are now in place, and Microsoft customers can start migrating their test VMs into preproduction and production roles with a fair degree of confidence.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the company's uber-management solution for Hyper-V hosts and their VMs – namely, Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008. Only recently entering public beta, MSCVMM (a mouthful of an acronym) shows promise but is hindered by the inherent limitations of Hyper-V, especially by its inability to perform live VM migrations.

[ One of Hyper-V's advertised strengths -- the host partition's ability to work with generic Windows device drivers -- is also its greatest weakness: See "Hyper-V's Achilles' heel."
Read Tom Yager's review of Windows Server 2008.
Read Paul Venezia's review of VMware Infrastructure 3 with ESX Server 3.5 and VirtualCenter 2.5 ]

First, the good news: MSCVMM introduces a new, more streamlined UI for managing Microsoft's myriad virtualization environments, which now include Hyper-V as well as the legacy Virtual Server product line. The MSCVMM console provides quick access to common tasks while allowing you to filter the view in useful ways. Major functions, like controlling VMs and managing the asynchronous Jobs engine, are broken out into logical subgroups with Vista-esque Action panes appearing on the right side of the window according to the task being performed. Each subgrouping provides copious filtering options allowing you to focus, for example, on recently added hosts or VMs in a specific state. It's a simple mechanism but one that can make a world of difference when managing a large virtualization farm.

Library science
Also helpful is MSCVMM's library for storing VM images. The cornerstone of Microsoft's transition from workgroup VM also-ran to datacenter player, the MSCVMM library makes it easy to distribute and track VMs across a growing Microsoft virtualization infrastructure. Simply select the desired VM from the MSCVMM administrator console and assign it to the desired target host server. The MSCVMM library servers and agents take care of the rest, including copying the VM image (plus any snapshots) to the corresponding physical server and bringing it online. Combined with the new Quick Migration feature – which is basically a rapid snapshot-and-move operation, using the network as transport – MSCVMM's maturing library model should make it easier to scale Hyper-V to levels previously reserved for the VMware Infrastructure 3 product suite.

The bad news: Unfortunately, manageability is one of the only areas where Microsoft is close to catching VMware. The company has no answer for features like VMotion, which allows for seamless movement of VMs across servers with zero downtime. Microsoft had planned such a feature for Hyper-V but had to scrap it in order to meet its planned ship date of "six months after Windows Server 2008 launches." And while Quick Migration (which leverages Microsoft Cluster Server technology) makes shifting VMs between hosts less problematic, it still requires that the virtual machine be taken offline during the transfer – not an option for environments where high availability is a must.

Further, Hyper-V's official support for Linux as a guest OS is limited to Suse Linux Enterprise Server 10; all other Linux variants are treated as second-class citizens. Others may work, but only Suse gains installation support and extensions to improve integration (such as mouse/keyboard integration between guests and the host OS) and performance/scalability on Hyper-V. By contrast, VMware's ESX Server supports dozens of Linux variants directly by providing guest OS integration components (namely VMware Tools) to improve their performance and behavior on the ESX platform. But of course, Hyper-V's target market is consolidation of Windows servers, and nobody should be surprised that Microsoft is giving short shrift to its biggest competitive threat.

A plan in motion
Still, there are signs that Microsoft is slowly beginning to execute one of its patented embrace-and-extend strategies in an effort to topple VMware. Part of that strategy is to evolve the product to a point where it becomes good enough for a majority of scenarios. For example, though Quick Migration can't provide the same level of seamlessness that VMotion delivers, it's still a viable mechanism for shops where "really good" availability is sufficient, and that covers the vast majority of server consolidation scenarios. Combine this with a technically sound, well-performing hypervisor (Hyper-V), and you have the makings of a viable challenger. Throw in some aggressive pricing (that is, Microsoft's decision to offer Hyper-V as a stand-alone solution for $28) and the challenger becomes a legitimate threat.

Rounding out the strategy is Microsoft's decision to allow mixed Hyper-V/VMware shops to manage VI3 assets directly from within the MSCVMM management environment. Through integration with VirtualCenter, MSCVMM administrators can manage VMware VMs using native, VirtualCenter services, including VMotion. Microsoft has a track record of successfully integrating competing technologies (and tricking their competitors into integrating Microsoft's) in order to co-opt and, ultimately, replace them. The company did it with Novell NetWare and (to a lesser degree) Unix. Clearly, Microsoft thinks it can perform a similar end run around VMware, a company with deep technical resources but also an arrogant streak that may blind it to the reality of the Redmond threat. To quote the Cylon hybrid, "This has all happened before, and it will all happen again."

Note: I tested Hyper-V RC1 and a beta version of MSCVMM 2008 on a Dell PowerEdge 2950 server running the x64 version of Windows Server 2008 Enterprise (Hyper-V requires a 64-bit environment). As with most Server 2008 "roles," enabling Hyper-V was a simple matter of ticking a check box in Server Manager and picking a NIC for use by the virtual network manager. Installation of MSCVMM was a bit more involved, requiring an instance of SQL Server 2005, the .Net Framework 3.0, and Active Directory. Fortunately, MSCMM gives the option of installing SQL Server 2005 Express Edition automatically to resolve the SQL dependency, and the .Net version requirement is a nonissue for Server 2008 installations. Windows Server 2008 ships with .Net 3.0, though it's not enabled by default.

The end game
Overall, Microsoft's server virtualization platform is shaping up to be a viable datacenter contender, especially for shops with a significant investment in Windows Server technology. Though not as robust or as sophisticated as VI3, the Hyper-V and MSCVMM combination is a quantum leap from the aging, host-based Virtual Server architecture.

The question now is, should VMware be worried? I'd have to say yes, if for no other reason than history is on Microsoft's side. No company has shown the degree of patience and willingness to try, try again that Microsoft has demonstrated over the years. Hyper-V, in its current incarnation, may not be sufficient to wrest the datacenter heavyweight title from VI3. But for many shops, it will prove to be plenty good enough, allowing Microsoft to begin eating away at VMware's market share while preparing the next-generation product for the final assault that topples the leader. Don't say I didn't warn you.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Scalability (25.0%)
Usability (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Setup (15.0%)
Manageability (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V RC1 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 7.7
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