Dynamic Duo: Hyper-V and System Center

With their growing pains behind them, the Microsoft hypervisor and management suite have become formidable competitors.

After three releases in four years, Microsoft Hyper-V has come of age, and following a steady flow of improvements, its System Center management companion has also matured. Together, these two products are formidable competitors that may not have struck fear into the heart of VMware, but they have gotten the market leader's attention. Going forward, Redmond's task is to continue playing catch-up while carving out market share at the increasing number of sites where Hyper-V and System Center are coresidents with VMware ESXi and vCenter.

Playing catch-up doesn't realistically mean that Hyper-V will marginalize ESXi, or System Center will outperform vCenter. That simply will not happen, because VMware has had too much of a head start, and used that time wisely to evolve ESXi and vCenter into bulletproof competitors. What playing catch-up does mean is relying on Microsoft's time-tested, OS-centric ethos to economically carve out a winning cloud strategy that can compete with VMware's virtualization-focused approach.

Edwin Yuen recently replaced David Greschler as Microsoft director of Cloud and Virtualization Strategy in the Server and Cloud Platform Team, and he makes it clear that the two most recent releases of Hyper-V have been enhanced to the point where the product can now compete with any and all comers. For example, the Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 rendition, which was released in February, was highlighted by the inclusion of dynamic memory and RemoteFX graphics for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) desktops. Dynamic memory enables users to pre-allocate memory to individual virtual machines (VMs), which increases density and helps provide a consistent level of performance.

According to Yuen, when dynamic memory is included with standardized hardware from Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., performance has spiked by 40 percent. As a result, it's now possible to ensure that specified Hyper-V VMs are prioritized to receive the amount of memory they require, even if it means allocating more memory than is actually available.

Dave Bartoletti, senior analyst and consultant with Taneja Group Inc., gives Microsoft credit for recognizing the importance of virtualization and making a serious effort to engage it with Hyper-V, noting that three years ago a lot of analysts believed Hyper-V was little more than a way for Microsoft to "kill" virtualization while locking users into Windows OSes.

"While their focus is still obviously on the operating system, I think they have treated Hyper-V as the real fundamental enterprise technology it needs to be, and they've kept enhancing it," says Bartoletti.

Regarding the virtues of RemoteFX and dynamic memory, he says while neither of them gives Microsoft a competitive advantage, they are necessary catch-up features, adding, "Dynamic memory brings Hyper-V to par with VMware three or four years ago. It's just a different approach." Bartoletti goes on to note that dynamic memory still requires Windows guests, which limits users to a Microsoft environment, adding that Microsoft may support other guest OSes in the future via a slightly different approach -- using memory over-subscription for higher density -- which is a capability he says Redmond didn't favor previously because it claimed customers didn't want it.

"What that really meant two or three years ago was we haven't built it yet," he states, adding that VMware has been working on dynamic memory for seven years, and its implementation will further improve in the near future, likely as a component of the upcoming vSphere 5.

Buyer's Reluctance
According to Al Gillen, program vice president of System Software at IDC, even though Hyper-V has matured significantly, it still faces an uphill battle for market share if for no other reason than the inclination of Microsoft customers to be hesitant when it comes to buying new products. As he puts it, customers like to see a second or third version before they feel comfortable deploying, and in the case of Hyper-V, that tipping point may come with the next version of Windows, which is expected to debut by early 2012.

Asked if he believes Hyper-V will get a boost from that next version (aka Windows 8), Bartoletti comments, "I don't see how it wouldn't if people are waiting for these features. Microsoft has been taking its time. I haven't heard of any stability problems, or any major pushback from clients that have done early testing, so yes, I think it should certainly get a boost."

Yuen agrees with both Gillen and Bartoletti, saying, "A lot of people do wait with operating systems. Sometimes they wait for a second or third version, or a service pack, so we expect to see a real uptake in Hyper-V growth this year."

Then there's the 500-pound gorilla that is VMware. "Part of the problem Microsoft customers have is that, particularly in enterprises, VMware has been really successful and Microsoft is finding that displacing VMware is very hard to do. So where they have wins is typically in greenfield opportunities," Gillen notes.

In Yuen's view, Hyper-V has a shot at acceptance in established VMware shops because of three reasons: virtualization is still proliferating, Microsoft has a Windows Server 2008 R2 presence at many VMware customer sites that can download Hyper-V for free, and VMware is still widely viewed as overly expensive despite its solid reputation. Yuen says VMware customers at these sites are in effect saying, if Hyper-V can do what they need it to do, why wouldn't they choose it? After all, they own the management stack if they run Microsoft System Center, so Hyper-V is available to them gratis.

"The ability of System Center to manage both Hyper-V and VMware implementations really means that for customers to get started with Hyper-V, they don't have to abandon or get rid of their VMware implementation," Yuen declares. "In fact, they can keep that implementation and then simply grow with additional workloads or the additional work they need to do with Hyper-V, and then manage both of them together heterogeneously and progress as they want."

The issue of VMware being overly expensive continues to dog the company, even though VMware vSphere Hypervisor, the successor to ESXi that's based on its architecture, is free. Virtualization Review did a survey of its readers aimed at determining the importance of price, and found that 20 percent of Microsoft customers would be willing to sacrifice some functionality in order to save money by implementing Hyper-V. Independently of the survey, one user said he operates an exclusively Hyper-V shop because it costs less than using VMware. Yuen says that it's common for customers to choose Hyper-V because it costs less, but he maintains that Hyper-V customers do not trade functionality for affordability.

Bartoletti says that while VMware is more feature-rich, Hyper-V is particularly attractive "at a macro level" to companies that have investments in System Center and trained staffs that include very good Windows Server administrators. In his opinion, the Microsoft hypervisor has feature parity with where VMware was "a couple of years ago," and he sees it as part of a "trailing version" from Microsoft that's easy to work with in all-Microsoft environments, and can co-exist in VMware environments. He further states that although the Hyper-V market share is growing, VMware's share is not decreasing.

Citing a possible chink in VMware's armor, Bartoletti says that VMware has not done any better than Microsoft when it comes to integrating higher-level management capabilities from acquired companies into vCenter without requiring new interfaces. He cites Dunes Technologies and its process orchestration software as an example, while noting that Microsoft has invested considerable time and effort into integrating orchestration technology it acquired with Opalis.

In fact, Yuen says that Opalis will soon be renamed System Center Orchestrator, and in conjunction with System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) and System Center Virtual

Machine Manager (VMM), will enable customers to perform tasks that are beyond the capabilities of most virtual infrastructures. As he puts it, providing the ability to understand how workloads or applications run on VMs makes it possible to make those VMs and their applications run better.

"It's really having an additional level of knowledge beyond just saying 'OK, I've got virtual machine one, two and three on server X,'" Yuen says.

System Center 2012 Looking Good
Yuen says that many System Center products have been "refreshed" to add support for Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1. He also lauds System Center 2012, which has been receiving very favorable reviews for a product that isn't scheduled to be announced before the end of the year.

For example, Virtual Insider columnist and blogger Elias Khnaser recently wrote that System Center 2012 will enable users to build private clouds and manage Citrix XenServer in addition to previously supported hypervisors such as Hyper-V and ESX. He also notes its newfound mobile device management capabilities built on Google Android, Apple iOS, Microsoft Windows Phone 7 and Nokia Symbian.

Khnaser further describes how System Center 2012 optimizes application delivery to users based on the devices they're using; for example, it detects when someone is using an iPad and enforces the iPad policy and delivers apps and desktops that would run optimally on an iPad, such as VDI.

"However," Khnaser continues, "If the user is using a laptop, then it would deliver applications using [Microsoft Application Virtualization] and it would allow offline \access as well -- all seamless, policy-driven and automated."

Yuen turns quickly to comparisons with vCenter when the topic is System Center, saying it's difficult to compare the System Center stack to the vCenter stack because the Microsoft stack "just does so much more" than its competitor, and the VMware stack is more focused on virtualization and virtual infrastructures than it is on building additional links within those virtualized environments. Looking forward, he comments that while System Center currently does most of what vCenter does, when the 2012 version comes out, it will pull even by adding value in areas of application management and linking components, particularly via SCOM.

For users who have VMM and SCOM, VMM will feed virtualization information into SCOM, enabling users to monitor and manage clusters, servers and VMs as though they were in vCenter. In addition, with SCOM, users will be able to understand what logical OS or logical image is running inside a VM. As Yuen puts it, System Center will provide a full link and a complete understanding of the environment, allowing users to build and monitor at the service level.

"So what that means is, rather than understanding one environment or another, users will be able to understand it as a whole," he says.

As an example, he describes a scenario in which a physical server goes down, saying that, in a physical world, only one machine would be affected, making it possible to understand what happened and what workload was running on the physical server. In the case of a virtualized workload, however, with 25 or 30 different workloads running simultaneously, an admin could tell what VMs are lost, but would not be unable to understand the workload impact. "With System Center, you would understand that instantly and react to it automatically," Yuen states.

While Bartoletti ticks off a list of System Center capabilities offered by vCenter -- such as end-to-end datacenter automation, automated provisioning and maintenance, distributed resource scheduling, distributed power management, and multimachine configurations -- he also says that System Center 2012 will likely raise the ante by becoming the first System Center version to achieve parity with vCenter when it comes to supporting virtual platforms.

He's also excited about the implications of upcoming VMM capabilities that have been around for several years in the idea stage, but not previously implemented. These capabilities include self-service provisioning and a self-service portal that creates VMs on-demand that can be deployed on-premises or in the cloud. By offering these capabilities, Bartoletti says, System Center will be on an equal footing with VMware vCloud Director, vCloud Request Manager and vCloud Connector. In this advanced environment, users will be able to request services from whatever sources have the best VM resources, whether they be on private or public clouds.

"These are the management tools that will receive the most attention," he says. "Of course, what we have to bear in mind is by the time VMM 2012 is out, we're going to be looking at VMware's next generation, which I'm sure will be announced at VMworld this year. So we'll see what's coming in the management suite from VMware."

Virtualization Overdose?
Does VMware rely too much on virtualization? Yuen says yes, because as the company adds more features and functions, the return on applicability for everyone who runs the applications is diminishing. He believes that at some point, VMware has to talk about how to manage those VMs, and understand what runs in them, as opposed to continuously adding more and more enhancements.

He likens the situation to getting a new generation of hardware, but still having to manage the applications and workloads that run on it, whether they're physical or virtual. That, he says, is where a significant amount of work and variability comes into play, and "if you can't establish a level of management, you can't unlock the gains that hardware has to offer."

"That's really what Microsoft's been focused on," Yuen states. "It's not just about managing virtual machines, it's our understanding of how those applications work, and then linking the two together. Then I have a better understanding of how the changes will help each other -- how the application changes will affect the demands on the virtual machine, and how changes to the virtual machine or the infrastructure it runs on will change how the applications run."

Up Close and Personal
It seems inevitable that as the number of IT shops with multiple hypervisors and enterprise management tools multiplies, Hyper-V, vSphere Hypervisor, System Center and vCenter will all find themselves in increasingly close quarters. From a user point of view, of course, more choice is the best choice, as long as everything can be controlled from a centralized console, as is currently the case with VMM managing vCenter, and vCenter XVP Manager and Converter managing System Center.

But what are the challenges of heterogeneous virtualization environments going forward? Yuen says that in a virtualized world where Hyper-V and other hypervisors are becoming more prevalent, the cost of management stacks is going to be significant, and as virtualization grows, unless users have a single management stack that handles not just applications and physical systems, but virtual systems as well -- such as System Center -- they're going to end up managing two completely different stacks.

He goes on to note that in the course of making VMM compatible with vCenter, Microsoft went beyond simply endowing VMM users with rudimentary vCenter management capabilities such as viewing internal operations. Instead, Yuen says, Microsoft added a lot of functionality within VMM that was applicable to both VMware and Hyper-V environments. As an example, he cites the inclusion of Performance Resource Optimization, which provides vMotion, and the ability to deploy new VMs based on application loads detected in SCOM.

"So it's not just a view in, which is kind of what XVP gives you," Yuen explains. "We're really looking at bringing complete management and functionality to all the different hypervisors rather than just giving a sneak view in. That's what we committed to in Virtual Machine Manager, and we're extending it in System Center 2012."

IDC's latest numbers shed some light on the growth of the hypervisor market. The market research firm says in 2010, worldwide hypervisor new shipment/deployment market share (including all products, paid and free) was as follows: VMware at 58 percent, Microsoft at 25 percent and others at 17 percent. Microsoft products included were Microsoft Virtual Server, Hyper-V and Hyper-V Server. These numbers were current as of May 2011.

Political Intrigue
Despite Microsoft's pledge to serve all virtualization users by making System Center compatible with vCenter, there are still doubters. Yuen says that the No. 1 question Microsoft has fielded in the wake of developing the ability to manage vCenter is: "'Are you adding this capability to see into VMware systems just to convert users over, or are you serious about managing VMware?' Sure, we'd like people to convert over -- and Virtual Machine Manager does facilitate the conversion process, but it was also about meeting the needs of the customers."

Bartoletti sums up the situation by saying, "Yeah, it's going to make for some exciting theater. When they can both manage each other's products, then the next step will be to try to put a fence around the other vendor's product, right?"

The possibilities for political infighting are intriguing, to say the least.


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