In-Depth

Microsoft Reaches for the Virtual Sky

Microsoft's new Hyper-V is the cornerstone of its virtual structure.

Up until now, Microsoft has been content with a tentative approach to virtualization. A few products released here and there; buying a handful of scattered virtualization-related vendors; a little bit of management capability thrown in. But until late last year, it didn't seem as if there was a real plan to truly tackle the virtual arena. The creation of Hyper-V changed all that; now the company has tied its entire virtualization strategy to the brand-new hypervisor's acceptance and adoption in the industry.

Hyper-V, formerly code-named "Viridian," is Microsoft's proprietary virtualization platform, and its release marks a departure from past hypervisors. The crucial difference is that it's bare metal, meaning that it sits directly on the hardware. It doesn't require Windows Server to work, and in fact sits beneath the OS in the software stack. It also signals Microsoft's late -- but not fatally so -- hard-core entry into the enterprise virtualization market.

Previous Attempts
Until Hyper-V, Microsoft had no substantive answer for VMware or Xen, an open source hypervisor used by a number of vendors including its owner Citrix Systems Inc. , Virtual Iron Software Inc. , Novell Inc. , Red Hat Inc. and Oracle Corp. Those disadvantages, to a large measure, are overcome by Hyper-V.

Not all, however. Some technologies that were scheduled to debut in Hyper-V were pulled last year so that Hyper-V could be released with Windows Server 2008 (WS2008). Functionality like live migration, which allows a VM to be moved from one physical machine to another with no downtime, and several other key features were dropped.

No Complaints
Mike Neil, Microsoft's general manager for virtualization, says the stripped-out features won't be available with the shipping version of Hyper-V, expected 180 days after WS2008 ships, but is confident they'll eventually be added. Neil also notes that Hyper-V will have "Quick Migration, which allows migration with very little downtime -- counted in seconds."

Neil says that customers aren't complaining about what's missing in Hyper-V. Since the beta came out last December, "the feedback on the beta has been very, very positive -- particularly with [regard to] performance and multiprocessing," Neil says. Also encouraging were "positive reviews on the new user interface with Microsoft Management Console 3. 0. Overall, we're quite pleased with the feedback; nothing came back that I would say is a substantial issue."

One issue likely to work in Microsoft's favor is that Hyper-V is free with WS2008 (64-bit versions only), and almost free, at $28, for the standalone version. So even if it doesn't offer ESX Server's bells and whistles, its price point almost guarantees it will get its tires kicked by admins and IT managers.

"I think [Hyper-V is] going to be utilized at a fairly high rate. Clients are waiting and planning on testing it, or have made the assumption they'll be implementing it," says Jeff Hewitt, research vice president at Gartner Inc. , who specializes in server virtualization. "Quite a few people are going to be evaluating it, and implementing it once it's available," he predicts.

Not surprisingly, Neil agrees: "Our business model is very different from VMware's. TCO [total cost of ownership] is an issue for our customers. The [analyst firm] Yankee Group put us at a third of the cost [of VMware] for a similar solution. We have a competitive product that provides high value at a reasonable price. "

Building an Ecosystem
Microsoft also realizes, however, that hypervisors aren't likely to be cash cows going forward. That's why the company, like all the other big players in the space, is moving toward virtual infrastructure management. Redmond's management product is System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM). "Management's a critical issue. The hypervisor is somewhat a commodity piece of technology; providing the richness of management is where we can excel," Neil says. That management extends from the data center to the desktop, and includes storage virtualization management and utilizing virtualization for disaster recovery and high-availability purposes.

VMware does all of those things with its VirtualCenter management console. But it has the advantage of having a mature product with a healthy ecosystem around it, adding to and extending its native management capabilities. Microsoft doesn't have that yet, but Gartner's Hewitt believes it's coming: "I think it will take some time, [but I] think a percentage of the market will go to it. I think we'll see that impact, as [Hyper-V] matures a little bit. I don't think it will be overnight, but it will happen at a fairly rapid pace."

Neil says Microsoft has taken steps to rev up the ecosystem. "The release of the beta product [the Hyper-V beta last December] was a prerequisite," he explains. Neil also mentions the recent release of the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) implementation of Hyper-V, which is a management interface for third-party developers, as another ecosystem-building essential. "Those were critical milestones for us to meet. We have the expectation that you'll see a very healthy ecosystem develop around Hyper-V," Neil continues. "I think [the ecosystem] will evolve over time. ... We're working with all the OEMs to make sure Hyper-V is supported by them."

Currently, however, nearly every third-party ISV developing for the virtualization market is basing their development around ESX Server first, and Hyper-V and Xen later. Microsoft, of course, knows how important it is to start building that ecosystem now; without it, Hyper-V could easily become an orphan, especially given its proprietary nature.

Unified Thinking
Whatever it takes, though, it's clear that Microsoft will invest the necessary effort. Redmond wants what VMware has, but can it pull it off? Analyst Dan Kusnetzky of Kusnetzky Group isn't sure: "Microsoft doesn't have the single-minded focus on virtualization that VMware has. Until recently, they didn't have unified thinking on the topic."

That may be changing, and Kusnetzky does think Microsoft will play a central role in this nascent field. "I think that five years from now, the top players will clearly be VMware, Microsoft and somebody else. Citrix is betting on XenSource [now XenServer] being that somebody."

Gartner's Hewitt concurs that Microsoft will use its substantial might in the industry to compete ferociously for a bigger slice of the virtual pie. He's not ready to predict yet, however, that it will succeed. There's an assumption, he says, that "Just because Microsoft enters a market today, they'll just take it over. That's a dangerous assumption."

More Information

Q&A: A 'Comprehensive Approach to Virtualization'

A 20-year Microsoft veteran, Bob Muglia is one of the company's top leaders. As senior vice president of the Server and Tools Business, he's guiding Microsoft's virtualization strategy, including development of its first bare-metal hypervisor, Hyper-V. In an interview with Virtualization Review Editor in Chief Doug Barney and Editor Keith Ward, Muglia addressed questions about Hyper-V, competition with VMware Inc. , virtualization's future and more.

Is virtualization going to be the most important data center technology for the next 10 years?
It's extremely important, but it isn't the only technology that matters. First, there are many types of virtualization. When people say virtualization, they're generally referring to what we would call server or hardware virtualization -- where a hypervisor enables a virtual image of an operating system to run. But other types of virtualization are also important, such as application virtualization, presentation virtualization and desktop virtualization. The virtualization market is nascent. With less than 10 percent of servers currently using virtualization technology, and less than 1 percent of desktops, it's clearly still the early days of virtualization. We're taking a comprehensive approach to virtualization -- addressing it at the hardware, application and management levels. Microsoft's approach is unique in terms of both the breadth of our solutions and cost savings, making it possible for virtualization as a technology to become ubiquitous.

What advantages does Hyper-V hold over hypervisors from VMware and Citrix?
Hyper-V is easy to set up and deploy within a Windows environment. Unlike VMWare or Xen, it's not a completely separate infrastructure that must be acquired, updated and configured. So administrators who are familiar with Windows will find it very easy to deploy and maintain Hyper-V virtualization.

Citrix is also developing a software tool that lets customers easily transfer virtual machines between Citrix XenServer and Windows Server [WS] 2008 Hyper-V to bring even greater interoperability to customers. Customers want multi-hypervisor support and interoperability, and management of both physical and virtual systems, as well as applications. That's not currently available from VMware.

Does Microsoft plan to go beyond server virtualization into other areas of virtualization, such as storage virtualization and I/O virtualization, in future versions of Windows Server?
Although each layer of virtualization delivers an important set of benefits, the real power of virtualization comes when companies implement an integrated virtualization strategy that extends across their IT infrastructure. For example, SoftGrid Application Virtualization has sold over 5. 2 million licenses in its first year of Microsoft availability. In addition, Virtual PC 2007 was released [as a free download] in February 2007, and there have been 2. 5 million downloads to date.

We have a large ecosystem of OEMs that distribute our products and thousands of ISVs that write software which run with our products, and thousands of integration and training partners are all working closely with us to provide the knowledge to help train, plan, deploy and support virtualization with customers. Together with our partner ecosystem, we will deliver end-to-end solutions for our customers. In addition, you'll see solutions built around our systems, which include storage virtualization and infrastructure optimization virtualization.

Why was the decision made to make Hyper-V a stand-alone product, as well as bundle it with WS 2008?
Most customers want virtualization capabilities in their server operating system. We think that most Microsoft customers will see this value and buy Windows Server 2008. But, some of our customers, particularly our OEM partners, have indicated a desire to ship a virtualization solution separately. To address that customer demand, we're also offering Microsoft Hyper-V Server, a stand-alone server virtualization product.

Some have claimed Hyper-V was offered as a stand-alone to avoid antitrust allegations. Is this true?
No. We made this decision to meet the needs of our customers.

Is VMware more of a competitor or partner? How do you work with the company on standards and interoperability?
Our working relationship with VMware, alongside its parent company EMC Corp. , has progressed in the past 12 months. In some ways we partner, and in many ways we compete. We've worked together on industry standards, and we're both ISV development partners.

In fact, we joined VMware's partner program, and we're working to make sure that we have strong interoperability between our respective management technologies. Similarly, we provided VMware and other vendors with early releases of the Hyper-V APIs so that they can develop solutions on top of Hyper-V. That said, we're both developing technologies and solutions for customers to meet the need in the market. Our approach, strategy and vision differs from VMware, but we view this as healthy competition, which enables both companies to provide customers and partners with greater and more economical choice in the end.

"We're working to make sure that we have strong interoperability between our respective management technologies"
-- Microsoft's Bob Muglia
Bob Muglia, Microsoft

How is your relationship with Citrix/Xen the same or different from VMware?
At our virtualization summit in January, we announced with Citrix that we plan to co-market new client-computing offerings with the next generation of Citrix Presentation Server and the Citrix XenDesktop products. Using these solutions, customers will be able to deliver solutions such as remote Windows-based desktops to all their task- and knowledge-based workers at a low cost, with improved performance and security features. In addition, Citrix is developing a software tool that lets customers easily transfer virtual machines between Citrix XenServer and Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V to bring even greater interoperability to customers.

To what extent is Hyper-V a development platform?
Our broad partner ecosystem looks to Microsoft for extensible software platforms, and Hyper-V is no different. For example, late last year we announced that we'd extend the Open Specification Promise [OSP] to the hypercall API within Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V. The hypercall API enables partners to develop solutions with Hyper-V and are available for use by any organization that wants to integrate or extend its software with Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V. Development teams at Novell Inc. , XenSource Inc. , Sun Microsystems Inc. and Citrix are using the hypercall API to build solutions on Hyper-V.

Is it more open for developers than VMware?
We're taking a step further in our commitment to interoperability by extending the OSP to the hypercall API within Hyper-V. With the OSP, any individual or organization can implement, commercialize and modify Microsoft's virtualization format technology for free -- now and forever.

Microsoft has taken shots over the years about its licensing programs, that some call confusing. Virtualization has the potential to have the greatest licensing challenges of all, given the ease of creating virtual machines. Is Microsoft still finding its way in the area of virtualization licensing, or are you happy with your current offerings?
In October 2005, in an effort to address some of the licensing challenges for this new usage model, Microsoft made virtualization-focused licensing changes to benefit customer usage scenarios: Installation-based licensing was changed to instance-based licensing for server products.

Microsoft changed licensing to allow customers to run up to one physical and four virtual instances with a single license of Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition on the licensed device, and one physical and unlimited virtual instances with Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition on the licensed device.

With the release of Microsoft SQL Server 2005 SP2, Microsoft announced expanded virtualization use rights to allow unlimited virtual instances on servers that are fully licensed for Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Enterprise edition. Beyond that, just recently, we lowered the annual subscription to Windows Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop for rich clients covered by Microsoft Software Assurance for Windows Client. Windows Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop provides unique licensing and flexibility to run Windows in virtual machines on servers and access them from either PCs or thin clients. For consumers, Windows Vista Home Basic and Windows Vista Home Premium are now licensed for use in a virtual machine environment.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.

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