Jan 15 2009

Five Ways to Win With Hyper-V

If you're not deploying virtualization today, you might soon be tempted to -- in part because Microsoft is making it easy and free.

Virtual machines aren’t new. IBM devised the idea of creating images of guest operating systems, or partitions, on mainframe systems back in the 1960s. But only with the arrival of VMware and its virtualization software in 1999 did running a virtual machine on an Intel-based x86 server become a reality.

Initially, few data centers thought they needed virtualization. After all, x86 servers were relatively cheap, and it was easier to load an application onto a single, dedicated machine than to buy and learn a new and complicated technology. But much has happened in the past decade to turn virtualization from an interesting idea into a must-have technology for IT managers.

Microsoft’s release of Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 last summer is the culmination of the changing conditions in the VM market. VMs are so prevalent and so necessary today that Microsoft has included the technology as a standard tool within its server OS. And when Microsoft ships something standard, you know it has gone mainstream.

No one disputes that Hyper-V lacks the complete feature set currently available in VMware, including memory capacity, management of "sleeping" machines and support for other OSes. A chief differentiator between the two virtualization tools is VMotion, which can automatically move a load from one VM host to another without operator intervention. This capability is likely appear in the next release of Hyper-V, as Live Migration.

The jury’s out on how crucial this new feature will be.

Matt Lavallee, director of technology at MLS Property Information Network in Shrewsbury, Mass., says he's "definitely looking forward to” Live Migration.

But  David Straede, president and chief operating officer for Santa Barbara Web Hosting (SBWH) in Santa Barbara, Calif., says he is not convinced the feature is that significant. He says it's unlikely that he would permit unattended migration of his customers’ VMs because "occasionally, it will not work." For the time being, workload migrations will occur after hours at SBWH, as they always have, he says.

Despite the differences between the two virtualization platforms, there are smart reasons to adopt Hyper-V. Here’s the BizTech  countdown of five ways to win with it in  your data center: 

Five: It’s Hard to Improve on Free

When it comes to cost savings, Hyper-V is attractive. The software is part of the Windows Server 2008. (Microsoft has the second version, Release 2 — or R2 as it is known, available as a beta and plans to issue a final version later this year.) You also can download the beta at no cost as well as separate free version of  Hyper-V. Compared with market leader VMware, free can add up.

In today’s economic climate, money matters more than ever before to IT professionals. “CIOs are looking to save money, and virtualization is the no-brainer way to save money,” says Christopher Steffen, principal technical architect for Kroll Factual Data in Loveland, Colo. Steffen estimates a competing product would cost three times as much.

Saving money is the top reason for moving to virtual machines. Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with the Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, points out that the lower capital expenditure costs from server consolidation, coupled with reduced power and cooling savings and reduced spending for maintenance, “build a strong return on investment case for server virtualization and consequently make it easy for IT folks to secure funding for virtualization projects.”

Four: You’ve Got the Power

The second reason IT leaders cite for going with Hyper-V is power. Straede acknowledges that power is also a money issue, noting that power and cooling costs have tripled in the past three years for his web hosting and managed service company. But he also points to power availability, noting that in the past electricity was simply not available from the grid on the West Coat.

“If we wanted to expand at all, we had to virtualize,” Straede says. “It allowed us to continue operating.”

Guests include: Windows and S#USE Linux

Virtual Iron
Virtual Iron Software
Guests include: Linux and Windows

VMware ESX Server
Guests include: Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, Netware

Citrix Systems
Guests include: Linux, Solaris, Windows XP

Three: Say Farewell to Hard-to-Manage Hardware

Beyond the obvious cost benefits of consolidation, Lavallee points to a third reason to embrace server virtualization: hardware management. Running a data center with individual servers dedicated to single applications might seem simple, but it actually creates increased “administrative overhead, not to mention sheer physical footprint.” He’s moved 60 web and application servers to a single six-node Hewlett-Packard server cluster.

Steffen adds that virtualizing gives him more mileage from older hardware by letting him move servers from production environments to disaster recovery and ultimately to development and quality assurance users.

“We upgrade on a consistent cycle, and with virtualization we get more life out of an old system,” he says.

Kroll Factual Data has nearly 300 physical servers spread evenly among three computing environments. But those machines run more than 1,600 VMs, Steffen says.

Two: Stock Up on Provisions

Another driver is the ease of provisioning new guests and VMs. Straede says that getting a new VM up and running is a three- to four-minute operation.

Steffen conservatively estimates that provisioning takes about five minutes. “But really, it’s about as fast as pressing a button and making a copy. That’s no exaggeration,” he says.

One: Go With What You Know

That leads to the final reason for using Microsoft’s virtualization technology: familiarity. System administrators know which button to press when working with Hyper-V.

As Straede puts it, “It’s the Windows we already know. Click a box and off you go.”

He says that 95 percent of the HP blade servers in his data center run Windows. His administrators are comfortable and competent with Microsoft’s system management tools. Straede says he asked himself when considering virtualization tools, “What would it take to get proficient in VMware versus Hyper-V?” The obvious answer was Microsoft’s technology would require a shorter training runway, he says.

Lavallee agrees, especially given after-deployment factors, saying Hyper-V “holds even more promise for standardized maintenance and management through [Microsoft] System Center.”

No one disputes VMware’s superior feature set. Burton Group’s Wolf concludes that VMware’s product “is the most mature and will continue to win the feature war.” But Straede, like many users, find “Hyper-V is good enough.”

And a good-enough feature set with familiar management tools at no cost is a pretty good choice indeed.