Is Microsoft's Hyper-V in Windows Server 8 finally ready to compete with VMware?

Microsoft's built-in virtualization in Windows 2008 Server R2 has so far been unable to attain significant enterprise penetration. But all of that could change with Windows Server 8.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

If you've been following my writings on ZDNet for the last several years, you've probably realized by now that I am something of a virtualization and server technology junkie.

In my day job as a systems integration professional, I spend a great deal of time with these technologies, helping my customers attain greater server efficiency and density in their datacenters.

Figuring out how to fine-tune and optimize server and datacenter infrastructure is what I do, and in doing so I get to play with any number of virtualization and server operating stacks from all kinds of vendors. This includes Mid-range UNIX and mainframe virtualization stacks, VMware vSphere and also to a much more limited extent, Microsoft's Hyper-V.

It's actually kind of interesting that March 1, 2012 marks just over four years since I started writing for ZDNet, when I got my start as a guest columnist for Mary Jo Foley's All About Microsoft blog.

My second ZDNet article, published in Mid-February of 2008, was a review of the very first version of Hyper-V, which was introduced in beta form as an add-on to Windows Server 2008.

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I knew at that time that Hyper-V had a number of compelling features that could potentially allow it to gain significant inroads against VMware, particularly in Microsoft technology-centric environments.

However, despite excellent performance and overall value compared to its much more expensive competitor, the product was missing a number of key virtual infrastructure management and high availability features that was necessary to seal the deal for large enterprises in order to consider it to be in the running for x86 server virtualization platform of choice.

Four years later, enter Windows Server 8 Beta. In 2012, VMware continues to be the primary x86 virtualization platform for large enterprises and its position as industry leader in that space seems secure. But sometime at the end of this year, presumably summer, when Windows Server 8 is released to the public along with their new consumer desktop OS, this time things may very well be different.

For the first time in four years, Windows Server and Hyper-V are not only at parity in terms of basic enterprise virtualization functionality with VMware vSphere, but in a number of respects actually exceeds it in terms of features offered and encompasses the functionality of a number of other VMware products that would be considered expensive add-ons, as well as 3rd-party enhancements for VMware that you'd have to go to other vendors and spend big bucks for as well.

Back in September of 2011 I talked a bit about the features that were in the Developer Preview of Windows 8 Server. I don't want to repeat them again since they are pretty well spelled out.

Also Read: Windows Server 8, The Ultimate Cloud OS?(September 2011)

Instead, I'd like to focus on what is new and perhaps some perspective of why I think things might go a bit different this time around.

  • Microsoft has now added the capability for a VM running under Hyper-V to address up to 1 Terabyte of memory. That's doubled from what was in the previous test release, which was up to 512GB.
  • Additionally, a single VM now may address up to 64 Terabytes of virtual storage, which can be either thick or thin provisioned. This is up from 16 Terabytes per VHDX file in the previous Developer release.
  • Windows 8 Server Beta now supports 160 logical processors per Hyper-V host, as well as1024 VMs per host, 64 nodes per cluster, 4000 VMs per cluster and 32 virtual processors per VM.
  • Hyper-V Clustering has also been significantly enhanced since the previous developer release, which includes guest clustering using virtual fiber channel adapters.
  • A completely new file system, ReFS (Resilient File System) which is more reliable than NTFS, that automatically detects and corrects metadata corruption and is optimized for high avaliablity virtualized workloads when combined with Microsoft's new Storage Spaces architecture for pooled drives has been introduced.
  • Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS) is now extended to remote SMB file shares. Additionally, support end-to end encryption of SMB data at the share or filesystem level has now been added as a basic feature of the operating system without the need for IPSec or any specialized hardware for WAN acceleration.
  • SMB Directory Leasing improves application response times in branch offices by reducing the round-trips required between client and server.
  • Primary Computers for User Data Setting: Primary Computers is an enhancement to two existing features, Folder Redirection and Roaming Profiles. Primary Computers addresses security concerns by allowing administrators to specify a user-primary computer relationship in Active Directory.
  • Offline File Improvements: With the new Always Offline feature, users can be permanently placed in the offline mode and have a near-local performance experience with cached files. Cost Aware Synchronization automatically tracks roaming and bandwidth usage limits while on metered connections, helping users avoid unexpectedly high data usage costs.
  • A new Microsoft Online Backup Service which allows environments to back up critical data to Microsoft's public cloud and restore from any location has been introduced.
  • Voice Over IP integration with Remote Desktop Services and RemoteFX (server-side VDI and GPU acceleration) allows for rich audio and video conferencing experiences using virtualized desktops on thin clients that perform just like localized desktop applications. The Metro UI is also now extended to Windows 8 VDI applications and the Remote Desktop Client is now seamlessly integrated into Metro in Windows 8.
  • Advanced Data De-duplication technology built into the OS allows for a high reduction of storage overhead when storing similar forms of data.
  • Offloaded Data Transfer (ODX) in Windows Server 8 takes advantage of SAN array offload features to drastically improve performance, reduce I/O to and from the Server without utilizing server CPU cycles. ODX is used in Hyper-V for Live Migration (and in other storage-related scenarios in Windows Server 8 ) provided that your array supports hardware offload.

Now, all of these new features (which are not even the complete list, there are others that I've left out for brevity) are significant, and I intend to deep dive into these things over the coming weeks, but the key takeaway on Windows Server 8 is that built-in virtualization and management of that virtual infrastructure is not just a feature of the operating system, but an integral part of how a Windows Server 8 infrastructure is actually deployed.

Indeed, you could run Windows 8 Server installations on VMware, but you would totally miss out on the integration of the new role-based management UI as well as take advantage of the PowerShell scripting language that has extensions into the hypervisor and allows you to control to a very fine level of granularity how each VM serves its specific role in your environment.

One of the things that makes Windows Server 8 different than previous versions of the OS is that Microsoft now views the new "Server 8 Core" as the preferred method of installing virtualized instances of the OS.

Using this methodology, you start with essentially a stripped down "core" OS (or JEOS) and you add specific functionality components to your VMs, with the exact roles you need, such as IIS, or SMB, AD domain controller, DNS, DHCP, print server, et cetera.

Provisioning a virtual Windows server is as easy as following a wizard and choosing "parts" from a list to build into your VM, or by scripting in any number of built in "commandlets" in PowerShell if you want to do this in a much more scalable and automated fashion.

Sean Gallagher over at Ars Technica has done a nice run-through of the process to give you an idea what the management UI looks like.

Obviously, this minimalist, highly componentized way of deploying Microsoft infrastructure is very different from the kind of virtualized server deployments we've seen in the past. It's a lot more efficient and gives you an unprecedented amount of control over server density as well as providing extremely tight integration with the operating system management stack, something which VMware really doesn't offer today.

The big question is whether or not large enterprises will see significant value in all of these new features. I think the answer is yes, particularly if the organizations have a lot of investment in Microsoft technologies and they are looking to add significant efficiency and consolidate their environment.

That being said, I haven't yet seen as to whether or not Microsoft has significantly enhanced the Linux Integration Services in Server 8 -- this is something I intend to follow up on, because VMware's integration with Linux is excellent, allows for highly scalable Linux VMs, and provides for extremely good virtual multiprocessor performance with RHEL and SLES, and even supports other Linux operating systems such as Ubuntu.

Any organization that has a significant investment in Linux and is heterogenous in nature and has already made some investment in VMware vSphere might not want to bring in a second virtualization "Silo" just to run Windows infrastructure on, so Microsoft should consider making Linux a first-class citizen in Hyper-V.

EDIT: After some email discussion with Microsoft's virtualization lead Jeff Woolsey this morning, it has been brought to my attention that the future mainline Linux Kernel 3.4 will include the synthetic Hyper-V drivers. This means that Linux distributions based on this kernel or later when virtualized under Hyper-V will not require installation of "tools" drivers like VMware does, they will simply work virtualized out of the box. Additionally, the mainline kernel 3.4 and above will provide for up to 32 virtual processors per VM in Hyper-V, which is a significant increase over the previous version which only provided for up to 4 vCPUs per VM.

I'm really looking forward to putting this Server 8 beta through its paces and seeing what the latest Hyper-V and server management tools can do. Do you plan to deploy it in your organization? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent my employer's positions, strategies or opinions.

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