A new wrinkle -- and possible conclusion -- for the hypervisor wars

While Microsoft refutes claims that Hyper-V isn't enterprise-worthy, one expert believes the new virtualization battlefield won't be the hypervisor at all

For the past two weeks, I've been covering the "hypervisor wars," a very real battle between the 10-year veteran VMWare and a strong newcomer with lots of resources and a reputation for being competitively tenacious in the past: Microsoft.

In my previous column, I interviewed David Davis about the gap between the two virtualization tools as something that will always exist because even as Microsoft innovates, so will EMC's VMware subsidiary. However, that may ignore a reality of technology product development: We all know that the company second to market has the benefit of "copying" the first-to-market innovator. And inventing and copying have completely different timeframes, so we may see the gap close sooner than you'd expect, especially with Microsoft's ability to focus on the technology.

[ InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese takes a look at the hypervisor war and the new Hyper-V R2. | Keep up with the latest virtualization news with InfoWorld's virtualization newsletter and visit the InfoWorld Virtualization Topic Center for news, blogs, essentials, and information about InfoWorld virtualization events. ]

Is the hypervisor battle becoming irrelevant?
However, is the hypervisor itself going to be the place either company spends its time developing? Greg Shields doesn't think so.

When I spoke wth Shields, the Microsoft MVP and VMware vExpert chuckled a bit about the tit for tat between the two virtualization vendors and said, "I'm going out on a limb here, but it is my firm belief that the hypervisor wars are almost over. Virtualization is more than just the hypervisor; today, it is all about the management. The pace of innovation in core hypervisor technology appears to be plateauing. The real battlefront today is in finding the right products to manage your infrastructure. That can be vSphere, Hyper-V, or Xen Server, but what makes sense for your infrastructure is what you should deploy. I see this reduction in pace as a good thing. Virtualization is the future and those that are arriving late on the scene can learn from the decisions and lessons learned by the early adopters."

(Shields will present his thoughts on the state of virtualization on Tuesday, September 15, in his keynote "Virtualization today: Where we're at, where we're going" at the IT Virtualization Live Conference and Expo.)

Burton Group stirs up a contriversy over Hyper-V's enterprise readiness
Still, even if the hypervisor is soon to be a played-out battlefield, some people may not believe Hyper-V is up to snuff in the enterprise environment. For example, IDG News Service reporter James Niccolai recently reported the following: "Windows Server 2008 R2 will help Microsoft narrow the feature gap with virtualization products from VMware and Citrix Systems, but its new Hyper-V software still won't be 'production-ready' for most enterprise applications, according to Burton Group."

The analyst company did a side-by-side comparison between vSphere v4 and Hyper-V and concluded that Hyper-V lacks three of the 27 features required for a thumbs-up from Burton: "the ability to prioritize virtual machine restarts; support for a minimum of two virtual CPUs per guest operating system; and the lack of a fault-tolerant management server."

As Niccolai reported, "The first can be important because dependencies can exist between virtual machines, so companies may need to start them in a particular order, said Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf. The second translates to a lack of compute power: Microsoft supports more than two virtual CPUs with its newest OSes, but only two with Windows Server 2003, and one for all other operating systems, Wolf said." Note, this issue with compute is that Microsoft does not offer SMP (multiple virtual CPU) support for Linux workloads. Many large enterprises run a variety of Linux applications in production, making scalable support for Linux environments a requirement. The Burton Group and Chris Wolf (a virtualization expert) are well respected so I look forward to seeing if Hyper-V can meet their standards going forward.

I spoke to several people at Microsoft about Hyper-V being enterprise-worthy, the Burton Group report, and their take on the competition with VMware. The had several interesting points that speak to the other side of the coin discussed by David Davis.  They countered:

First, VMware's platform is the ESX hypervisor and Microsoft's platform is Windows. This reality dictates the two companies' business models, development priorities, developer and channel priorities, and more. For Microsoft this means the partner ecosystem for Windows Server is the partner ecosystem for Hyper-V. It also means that customers adopt Windows Server for much more than just virtualization (Hyper-V), but also Web, directory services, file/print, networking, security, and more. And it means that the APIs for its products are open to one and all, not closely guarded like the APIs for vSphere.

Second, Microsoft views the hypervisor as a commodity, a view held by other vendors, too. That's why Microsoft has developed interoperability agreements with Novell, Citrix (and previously with XenSource), and Red Hat, so customers can better manage a multihypervisor environment. Although Microsoft will continue to add new features to Hyper-V, just like it does with Windows Server, the bigger impact will come from systems management. Case in point: Microsoft's System Center suite is well-established at managing Windows desktops, servers, and Microsoft applications (including SQL Server, Exchange, and SharePoint). More recently, customers now can use System Center to manage VMware ESX virtual machines and non-Windows operating systems, and they can buy one license that lets them distribute, update, monitor, and back up an unlimited number of virtual machines running on either a server or desktop.

Third, pertaining to the Burton Group scorecard, is that Microsoft customers have similar capabilities to what is ostensibly missing. For example, customers can assign priority to VMs at the host level, which today allows customers to prioritize running and memory to one workload over others. This isn't exactly what Burton Group's scorecard evaluated, but it also didn't look at the relative cost/value proposition to customers for that feature. I believe most of you are just fine with host-level VM prioritization. As far as SMP support for VMs, Hyper-V covers Windows Server 2003 and 2008, which is a huge part of the installed base. And Microsoft's recent Hyper-V IC contribution to GPL v2 will give the open source community the opportunity to develop SMP support to run non-Windows OSes.

The Microsoft reps also countered the Burton Group's knock on Hyper-V's enterprise worthiness by citing several large companies -- Ingersoll Rand, Renault Retail Group, Yahoo Japan, and of course, Microsoft.com -- that run on Hyper-V. And customers such as the University of Miami, Ingersoll Rand, Crutchfield, Group Health, and more than 100 more have switched away from VMware in the past year, according to the (hardly unbiased) folks at Microsoft.

Where do you stand in the soon-to-be-over hypervisor wars? Are you beyond the hypervisor debate and into the management infrastructure debate? Are you in agreement with the Burton Group's stand, or do you think that gap between Hyper-V and ESX is narrower than VMware (and others) would like to admit?

Addendum: After this story went live, Chris Wolf of the Burton Group was given an opportunity to explain the position more clearly: "Burton Group has consistently maintained that our criteria is based on large enterprises virtualizing heterogeneous workloads. Since our evaluation criteria was announced in February, we have maintained that while we provide a guideline, customers know their criteria best. It is up to each customer to select the evaluation criteria that is absolutely critical for their needs. Oftentimes, select criteria that we list as "preferred" or "optional" is considered essential by some customers, or for certain workloads such as virtual desktops. Hundreds of enterprises, both small and large, have used our criteria as the baseline for their RFPs and virtualization product decisions. In nearly all cases, the criteria were adjusted by the individual organization to reflect their virtualization needs. That being said, I understand Microsoft's position with regards to our criteria. Numerous Burton Group clients run production workloads on Hyper-V today, and do so with our full backing. As a fully independent, vendor-neutral research firm, Burton Group will continue to recommend what we feel is the right technology for each of our clients' unique situations. It is our hope that our evaluation criteria will continue to be used by user organizations as the baseline for each of their comprehensive virtualization platform assessments."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.