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Rolling Review: Hyper-V Aces VM Basics

But Microsoft's hypervisor lags behind VMware in rapid provisioning and disaster recovery--for now.

In our rolling review of Windows 2008 Server components, we've saved the most intriguing--Hyper-V--for last.

Our take? Hyper-V is great for basic Windows server consolidation, and it works well in rudimentary high-availability scenarios, but it's no match for the wide range of enterprise capabilities offered by Citrix XenServer and VMware's suite of products.

First things first: As you deploy Hyper-V, you'll discover that you will need true 64-bit hardware to run it; Citrix XenServer requires a 64-bit machine as well. In contrast, VMware's ESX Server can run on standard 32-bit hardware. Customers may find that some of their most capable hardware won't run Hyper-V.

Further, if you've been running a prerelease version of Hyper-V, you'll need to make sure you bring your hypervisor up to a post-release version by installing the KB950050 update package.

One of the niceties of Hyper-V is the Microsoft Management Console snap-in that's installed along with the Hyper-V server. The Hyper-V MMC snap-in runs much faster than the bloated VirtualCenter client. And if you're running Windows Vista Service Pack 1, you can remotely manage your Hyper-V servers with the same server-based snap-in by installing the KB952627 update.

Building virtual machines in Hyper-V is very easy to do. A wizard-driven dialogue takes you though the process of allocating the memory, processing, network, and storage resources required for the new virtual machine. Once complete, you can easily mount the ISO image needed to boot and install the new VM operating system.


Hyper-V lacks support for guest operating systems, a huge differentiator between Hyper-V and both ESX and XenServer. Hyper-V officially supports only select Microsoft server and client operating systems, as well as SUSE Linux. ESX supports practically every OS ever built, on almost any hardware, and makes Hyper-V's guest OS support look insufficient. XenServer isn't as capable as ESX with respect to guest OS support, but its support for a variety of Linux distributions makes Xen more capable than Hyper-V.

There's no direct way to clone a VM to a template for mass distribution via the Hyper-V MMC snap-in: You can clone a VM within the Hyper-V manager by running an export of a Hyper-V virtual hard disk file, then attaching the exported file during the VM creation process--a clunky procedure. VMware's VirtualCenter owns the advantage, at least until Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 arrives. It's now in beta and set for release late this year.

Rapid VM provisioning is key for organizations virtualizing their production environments: High availability and zero-downtime migration are equally important. VMware provides both capabilities now.

VMWare still leads in features


High availability and VM clustering in Hyper-V worked well in the lab, but Hyper-V lacks a few fundamental features compared with ESX and the VirtualCenter/ VirtualInfrastructure suite. First, in order to cluster VMs with Microsoft Cluster Service, VMs must live on different logical unit numbers (LUNs) because it's not possible for two separate Hyper-V virtual machines to have read/write access to a file system at the same time. With VMware's VMFS, middleware exists between a VMware VM and the back-end LUN. As a result, the shim abstracts the back-end storage and allows multiple VMs and ESX servers to share a single LUN. This isn't a huge deal for small shops, but the need to provision separate LUNs for each virtual machine will be an administrative nightmare, especially for IT shops that routinely build and destroy VMs for testing, development, and quality assurance.

Microsoft told us that shared storage support for multiple VMs exists now through a third-party offering, Kayo FS from Sanbolic. Kayo FS is priced at $299 per host server and is sold in bundles of five licenses. Conversely, VMFS comes free with ESX Server, and it's included with all VMware Infrastructure versions.


CLAIM:  Microsoft is marketing Hyper-V as an enterprise-ready, fully functional alternative to VMware and Citrix hypervisors. Hyper-V aims to address server consolidation, rapid deployment, and disaster recovery.

CONTEXT:  Hyper-V stacks up well against VMware ESX and Citrix XenServer when it comes to simple server consolidation, and it's easier to deploy. But for large-scale server virtualization chores, Hyper-V is still catching up.

CREDIBILITY:  Microsoft delivers a solid platform for core server virtualization. Its guest OS support can't compare with ESX Server's and Xen-Server's, but Microsoft-centric IT shops will find it easy to deploy and manage. And Microsoft is developing Hyper-V's enterprise capabilities at full throttle—a bad sign for rivals.

Disaster recovery is the other big deal for enterprises virtualizing in production. Hyper-V does it well, but not quite as quite as well as VMware's VMotion. In Hyper-V, when a VM must be relocated to separate physical hardware, the VM state and storage must be saved and relocated, and there's downtime associated with that process. With VMotion, state and storage are migrated in the background, and the cutover is almost instantaneous. Pricier versions of Citrix XenServer offer similar Live Migration capabilities. In the labs, we've seen VMotion cutovers happen in less than one second. With Hyper-V, the time it takes to cut over a virtual machine to new server hardware depends on the amount of memory allocated to the VM, along with the amount of storage that must be copied.

On the flip side, VMotion is only available with VMware Infrastructure Enterprise, the most expensive edition. Similarly, you'll need to buy Citrix XenServer Enterprise or Platinum edition in order to get Live Migration.

For now, Hyper-V's strengths are confined to server consolidation and basic enterprise management. But enterprise IT needs more than just a hypervisor, and VMware/ Citrix have the edge in load balancing, disaster recovery, high availability, rapid provisioning, and guest OS support.

But you can bet the VMware and Citrix advantage will be short-lived. Service Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 promises new features like support for VMware's Virtual Machine file format through an integration with VirtualCenter. A ton of resources are being pumped into Hyper-V development, and that usually spells trouble for Microsoft's competitors.

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