Microsoft's hypervisor-based virtualization technology will hit the streets in its final version some time this summer. Hyper-V, formerly known as Viridian, will be rolled into the Data Center and Enterprise Editions of Windows Server 2008.
Although much hyped, this is not Microsoft's first venture into virtualization. Its Virtual Server product holds that distinction. Hyper-V, however, is its first product to use the same hypervisor-based technology as market leader VMware and Citrix with its open source Xen.
What is significant about Microsoft's move is that although hypervisor technology makes hardware-assisted virtualization extremely efficient and servers virtualized in this way suffer very little performance penalty, the market is relatively immature. VMware currently has the largest market share by far, but the percentage of servers actually virtualized remains small.
"In the virtualization space, there is still everything left to play for," said Barb Goldworm, president and chief analyst at Boulder, Colorado-based Focus Consulting. "If you look at the virtualization market today, 75 percent of large companies have implemented some form of virtualization, but probably only 10 percent to 15 percent of the servers in the world are virtualized. So the market is only 10 percent saturated," she added.
This suggests that Microsoft has timed its entry into the serious virtualization world just about right. Awareness of the benefits of virtualization is high thanks in no small part to the ongoing marketing efforts of VMware but plenty of companies have yet to commit to the EMC-owned company.
So although there's little reason for enterprises that have chosen to go with VMware to switch to Microsoft's Hyper-V, those that have yet to embrace virtualization technology have every reason to consider Hyper-V especially if it comes bundled with Windows Server 2008.
"We are certainly not getting the idea that there is any dissatisfaction with VMware," said Chris Ingle, a research director at IDC. "But Microsoft will be giving customers an easy opportunity to virtualize if they are interested."
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HP, Dell and others will effectively be bundling Hyper-V when they supply servers to their customers later this year. Some vendors, including Dell, HP and IBM are also offering the option of the embedded VMware bare-metal virtualization product ESX Server 3i on their servers, via USB storage or a flash memory card that can be inserted to start the virtualized environment.
"It will be interesting to see how OEMs handle this in the future," said Chris Ingle. "Will they offer embedded and bundled hypervisors, or will they offer alternative SKUs?" he asked.
Competition aside, the most important question is whether Hyper-V is any good. "What everyone will want to know is what the final performance of Hyper-V will be like?" said Ingle. "We haven't seen the numbers yet, and until we see some published performance figures, it is rather difficult to decide," he added.
Support for non-Microsoft guest operating systems may also be important to some companies, although Microsoft-only shops will not be too worried about the hypervisor's ability to support Linux. In fact, Microsoft has said Hyper-V will support 32- and 64-bit operating systems, including Server 2003 and 2008, and "Linux and other operating systems." Make of that what you will until further announcements clarify.
Of course, the hypervisor itself is not really the whole story. To operate an effective virtualized data center, various management tools are needed, and this is an area that VMware has been at pains to stress with its Virtual Infrastructure concept. VMware has leveraged its virtualization technology to branch into other areas, including disaster recovery and business continuity.
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It's certainly true that VMware's management tools are impressive, especially its much-touted VMotion product, which allows virtual machines (VMs) to be moved on the fly from one host server to another. The company also offers a companion Storage VMotion product, which can move disk storage associated with a particular VM from one storage medium to another without having to stop the VM.
At the moment, Microsoft doesn't have anything that can match the feature set of VMotion. For management software, Microsoft will hitch its wagon to the System Center family of products. Most significant will be the Virtual Machine Manger module. When integrated with the rest of System Center, it promises the ability to manage an entire Microsoft infrastructure regardless of whether individual machines are virtual. In a mixed physical and virtual server environment managed by System Center, Virtual Machine Manager provides features for provisioning and other VM-specific tasks. For example, Operations Manger provides the unified health monitoring, while Data Protection Manager provides the continuous data protection for all of the servers both physical and virtual.
Of course, Hyper-V users will not be restricted to Microsoft-only management products, and it's likely the company will encourage plug-ins to System Center to enable specific vendors to work with it. Barb Goldworm said she believes things could go even further, "The Xen product has been architected as a base hypervisor, then services are built on top of that, and then a management layer over that. So it may end up that people use Hyper-V, services from Citrix, and management from System Center."
Whatever emerges, it's likely that this will spur VMware to make even more advanced management products for its products, resulting in an increased sophistication and attraction of the whole virtualization market.
The thing about Microsoft, however, is that it almost always gets what it wants. Come late 2008, Hyper-V is bound to be widely adopted by Microsoft shops that have yet to commit to virtualization. What will make the difference between a widely adopted product and one that can seriously challenge VMware in the long term are price, performance, and supporting tools and infrastructure.
Microsoft knows this, but don't expect VMware to sit there and do nothing to meet the challenge.