Mar 16 2011

The Ins and Outs of Infrastructure as a Service

Businesses can create their own private clouds with Microsoft Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

The term “private cloud” has become a buzz word of late, but what does it really mean? While the public cloud includes software as a service (SaaS) solutions from Microsoft (Business Productivity Online Standard Suite) and Google (Google Docs), Microsoft describes a private cloud as “an elastic pool of resources” hosted in your organization's data center.

While in the past, application managers had to wait for IT to deploy physical servers, attach disks and provision extra network capacity to host a new server application, private clouds quicken this process without the need to worry about backend logistics of setting up new hardware and systems.

Deciding which infrastructure as a service (IaaS) solution is best for your organization will require careful consideration of what you’re trying to achieve, the costs involved and how you might want to develop your IT systems in the future.

The Private Cloud

Whether the term “private cloud” emanates from a new way of thinking or was coined as a marketing term, the aim is to make hardware and systems flexible to deploy. Storage, servers and network infrastructure can be provisioned by application managers without the traditional complexity of involving engineers to install the necessary hardware and systems, allowing IT to adapt more quickly to changing business needs. This is also sometimes referred to as infrastructure as a service.

In the most sophisticated IaaS setups, virtual machines can be automatically deployed with pre-configured operating systems and have memory, network capacity and storage assigned dynamically. Hyper-V Cloud is a new private cloud solution from Microsoft that consists of three core products: Hyper-V 2008 R2, System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 and Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal 2.0.

The Hypervisor

At the core of any private cloud is a virtualization solution. VMware’s ESX server has long been considered the gold standard in data center virtualization, and vSphere 4 — VMware’s cloud operating system based on ESX — is their latest offering for building internal/external cloud infrastructures. So if VMware has the greatest virtualization solution, why would you look at Microsoft Hyper-V?

While it’s clear that VMware’s virtualization technology has more advanced features and is more mature than Hyper-V, if you are largely a Microsoft shop and can live without the advanced options available in vSphere, such as unlimited memory and a wider range of guest operating system support, Hyper-V could prove to be a better fit.

Hyper-V sits on top of Windows Server, and while it’s technically a type-2 hypervisor, Microsoft claims that it has type-1 performance because of low-latency driver access, as opposed to VMware’s direct access I/O. The reliance on Windows may be seen as a disadvantage, but on the plus side it has the benefit of familiar management and configuration tools and a well-established ecosystem.


Hyper-V Cloud is managed by System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), which can also be used to manage a VMware infrastructure, and fits nicely into the System Center suite of management and monitoring products.

Because many system administrators will already be familiar with Microsoft’s management tools for Windows Server and Active Directory, this reduces the learning curve considerably. PowerShell, the command line interface for systems management, is also compatible with Hyper-V.

Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal 2.0

The Self-Service Portal, released in November 2010, is an add-on for System Center Virtual Machine Manager and part of the Hyper-V Cloud solution that provides advanced functionality, such as scripting actions for storage area networks when provisioning new virtual machines and advanced delegated management of virtual machines in bulk, via a dynamic provisioning engine.

The Self-Service Portal is also extensible, allowing partners to extend the functionality to provide features such as chargeback — the process by which departments are billed for the resources they use — and monitoring of storage.

Setting Up a Private Cloud

When designing a private cloud solution, as you might expect, you will require a dedicated management server to host System Center Virtual Machine Manager. It cannot be run on a Hyper-V server that it is intended to manage. Hyper-V also has specific hardware requirements, including processor, chipset and BIOS support for Intel-VT.

Microsoft provides a series of documents to accelerate the test and build process of a virtual infrastructure. If you want to provide a virtual desktop infrastructure for employees, be aware that Microsoft’s VDI solution is not as mature as other manufacturers and might not scale well for large enterprises.

Windows Azure and More

Hyper-V Cloud can be extended to the public cloud, and provides federated IDs across both public and private clouds. System Center also allows hybrid applications, for example, part public cloud and part private cloud. System Center 2011, due to be previewed in the first quarter this year, is expected to include a new tool for deploying and managing resources and applications across private clouds. It will also incorporate Windows Azure, Microsoft’s hosted public cloud solution — or platform as a service (PaaS) — consisting of a server operating system, relational database and web services.