One Small Step for Virtualization, One Bigger Step to Come

Microsoft this week announced the availability of its VHD Test Drive Program, through which customers can download and install fully working virtual machine environments in Microsoft's VHD (virtual hard disk ). The program, which appears to be similar to VMWare's virtual appliance concept, provides evaluation and trial versions of Windows Server 2003 R2, Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2005, and, presumably, other Microsoft software in easily digestible, already installed and configured virtual environments.

All customers need to do is install Virtual Server 2005 R2--available now for free via the Microsoft Web site--and begin installing the solutions they are interested in. In the next 60 to 90 days, Microsoft partners such as BEA, Checkpoint, Citrix, HP, and Network Appliance will begin delivering free VHD-based trials as well, Microsoft tells me.

The VHD Test Drive Program is just the latest virtualization initiative from Microsoft, which is trying to establish the VHD format as a de facto standard for virtual machines. (VMWare, too, is busy trying to prevent that from happening.) VHD has proven to be such an excellent method of deploying software, in fact, that Microsoft is looking into using this format in unexpected ways, perhaps even as a standard software deployment format in the future. It's been used by the Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore feature in Windows Vista, which lets you create an image of your entire PC which you can then use to recover the system later in the event of a catastrophic hardware failure.

As is often the case, the best news for VHD and Microsoft's virtualization platform is yet to come. In early 2007, Microsoft will ship Virtual Server 2005 R2 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which includes support for Intel and AMD's processor virtualization features. Then, about 180 days after Longhorn Server ships (think early 2008), Microsoft will ship its Windows Server Virtualization component for that platform. This is something to get truly excited about.

Windows Server Virtualization will run on top of the Windows Core Services (formerly called Server Core) install type offered by Longhorn Server, providing customers with an incredibly small installation footprint and a much smaller attack surface than a typical Windows Server install. Windows Server Virtualization runs in what's called a parent partition. From that point, you can then install virtualized environments inside so called child partitions, which logically exist "next" to Windows Core Services and Windows Server on the hardware.

Windows Server Virtualization is an entirely new architecture and should result in dramatically better performance. But since we won't even see a private beta of this technology until the end of 2006, the only thing you really need to understand about it now is that it will continue working with the VHD format Microsoft is using today. And ultimately, that's the kind of insurance you're looking for when shopping around for virtualization platform.

VHD Test Drive Program

This article originally appeared in the November 7, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.