State of Virtualization 2009: Microsoft

This week, I'm in San Francisco to attend VMWorld, VMWare's annual tech conference. So I'll have a lot more to say about VMWare's products and strategy in the near future. But last week, with Microsoft announcing the finalization of its cross-platform virtualization management product, Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, I've got Microsoft on the mind. And it will be interesting in the weeks ahead to compare how these two companies go head-to-head in their respective bids to dominate this crucial market.

Coincidentally, I'm building my own virtualization environment here in my home office for a wide range of testing purposes. In the past, I maintained various server environments, including an ill-fated run with a rack-mounted monstrosity that's best left to the imagination. I've always found Microsoft's server offerings to be of high quality, but of course the need to maintain multiple servers locally can be painful and time consuming. So I'm moving a more limited set of servers and virtualizing everything.

I'm using Microsoft's Hyper-V server, of course, and while I've toyed with the standalone Hyper-V Server product as well as the Server Core version of Windows Server 2008 (and R2), I find the standard GUI Server to be superior on a number of levels, and I agree wholeheartedly with Microsoft's contention that virtualization should simply be exposed as a feature of its server OS. Through two generations of Hyper-V, first with Windows Server 2008 and now with Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft's core hypervisor technology has improved dramatically.

With R2, specifically, Microsoft has added the number one missing feature from the first version--live migration--and even improved it over time to work with processor families. There are other improvements. In keeping with the overall scaling improvements in R2, you can now utilize up to 64 logical processors from within Hyper-V (up from 24 in 2008). And you can offload TCP traffic to specific physical NICs with VM Chimney.

Hyper-V performs well, especially for those operating systems that are "enlightened," or made to work with the system's hardware more closely, thus improving performance. To date, the list of such enlightened OSes is still short and is comprised largely of modern versions of Windows (Windows 7, XP with SP3, Vista with SP1+, Windows Server 2003 SP2, Server 2008 or R2) and a handful of supported Linux distributions including SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and 11 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.3.

What Hyper-V lacks, natively, is any kind of multi-system management. That and other useful functionality comes courtesy of Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 (VMM08 R2), a crucial piece of the puzzle for those businesses that wish to deploy and manage a virtual infrastructure in production. And this isn't just Microsoft's servers we're talking about: VMM08 R2 can also centrally manage VMWare ESX Server, utilizing native VMWare Virtual Infrastructure 3 (VI3) features like intelligent VM placement and VMotion (VMWare's live migration functionality).

VMM08 R2 provides expected functionality around cluster failover and utilizes a feature called PRO, or Performance and Resource Optimization, to optimize VM performance. And you can now delegate administration through roles, perfect for larger and multi-location environments.

VMM08 R2 was just released to manufacturing (RTM) last Monday and will ship a bit earlier than Windows Server 2008 R2, in early October. I'll be looking at this solution soon, and should have more to say. And of course, there's the new standalone version of Microsoft's hypervisor, Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 R2, which I'll examine this week. After that, I'll see what I can do about investigating and using VMWare's recent platform improvements as well.

An edited version of this article also appears in the August 25, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul