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Microsoft claims Hyper-V will leapfrog VMware

After years of playing catch-up to VMware the upcoming version of Hyper-V is wowing the Microsoft faithful with unique new features -- and gaining the attention of VMware users, too, one consultant says.

Hyper-V will get an overhaul as part of the release of Microsoft's Windows Server 8. Microsoft has not announced a ship date for Windows Server 8, although roadmap documents released some time ago pegged it for 2012 (earning it the nickname of Windows Server 2012). A developer's preview of Windows Server 8, including Hyper-V, was made available during Microsoft's BUILD conference in Anaheim, Calif., in September.

BACKGROUND: Windows Server 8 First Looks

The new Hyper-V is "at least on par and in some ways better than VMware," says Aidan Finn, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional working as an IT consultant in Dublin, Ireland. The MVP program honors individuals who share knowledge about Microsoft products but are independent of the company. Finn is the author of "Mastering Hyper-V Deployment" [Sybex, November 2010].

"Certainly, at the moment, Hyper-V is a better value for the money. When you start looking at some of the new features, it catches up with vSphere, and users are also getting some stuff that vSphere only does at top end," Finn says.

Finn says Hyper-V exceeds VMware in three areas: support for cheap server-attached storage and Just A Bunch Of Disks (JBOD) with features such as Share Nothing Live Migration; site-to-site failover for disaster recovery with a feature called Hyper-V Replica; and virtual networking with a feature called Hyper-V Extensible Switch. In addition, Hyper-V now scales to massive sizes, supporting more logical processors and allowing each virtual machine access to more virtual CPUs.

Mike Schutz, Microsoft's senior director of Windows Server and virtualization, contends that Hyper-V adds features that none of its competitors have.

CLOUD-BOUND: Windows Server 8: To the Cloud!

Most of Hyper-V's gains over VMware start with storage, Finn believes. Hyper-V no longer requires a NAS, SAN or cluster. "VMware has had vMotion and high availability features, [but] they've been treated as the same thing in the Hyper-V world," he says.

No more.

Right now, "you have to store virtual machines on a SAN," Finn says. Ergo, if you want to give Hyper-V a try, you have to have a SAN or be willing to buy one. That's a very expensive thing to do, even on the low end. This changes in Windows 8. Hyper-V will be able to store virtual machines on a file server. Microsoft invested in remote direct memory access (RDMA) and built a new version of the Server Message Block file server protocol, dubbed SMB 2.2, which uses RDMA. This lets Hyper-V access files on another machine's file server, and allows users to build an active/active cluster between server-attached storage devices. So if a file server fails, it automatically fails over to another one, Finn says.

Live Migration will be supported between the server-attached storage devices, too, a feature Microsoft calls Share Nothing Live Migration. This is something "no one else in the market is really able to do today," Schutz says. Share Nothing allows a virtual hard drive and a virtual machine to be transferred between server-attached disks over a network connection.

Finn says Hyper-V's storage improvements mean customers can turn cheap options like JBOD into unlimited, scalable storage. By no longer requiring a SAN, virtualization becomes more affordable for small companies and for servers parked in remote locations.

OPEN SOURCE: Hyper-V gains another open source cloud: OpenNebula 3.0

VMware disagrees that Share Nothing Live Migration is unique to Hyper-V but admits that the ability is not a feature included with vSphere. "VMware supports it through a product called vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA), which makes server-attached storage appear to the vSphere hosts as shared storage. VSA fully supports VMware vMotion and High Availability. VSA can be purchased stand-alone or bundled with vSphere Essentials Plus," counters VMware's Mark Chuang, a product marketing director. He points out that VMware is currently running a sale on VSA, too. As for future plans in making it a part of the base vSphere software, Chuang has no comment.

Hyper-V Replica provides site-to-site failover, another feature that Finn likes, because it makes disaster recovery more affordable. "It allows you to replicate virtual machines, snapshots, over an asynchronous network over SSL with no distance limitation. And it's economic, using very low bandwidth. You can replicate to a branch office, or headquarters can replicate to a hosting company with a Hyper-V setup," Finn says. "This is only available in the vSphere world at the top end. If you are licensed for Hyper-V, you can take advantage of it. There's no 'V-tax,' as Microsoft calls it."

Schutz says Microsoft solved a replication issue to create Replica, and so the new version of Hyper-V will be able to "copy a virtual machine from one site to another while the virtual machine is running," he says.

Chuang says VMware offers a similar capability as a feature called vSphere Replication in vCenter Site Recovery Manager (SRM) 5, released in September. "vSphere Replication does significantly more than what Hyper-V Replica does, because replication is only one part of a total disaster recovery/site migration solution," he says. vSphere Replication lets IT administrators create a disaster recovery plan, automate its execution and do test runs. In addition, it lets users automatically fail over to the primary site.

However, Finn is right in that it costs more. "SRM is not included in any edition of vSphere and is sold separately," Chuang says.

The next version of Hyper-V also boasts impressive scalability, with support for up to 160 logical processors per host, 2TB of memory per host, 32 virtual processors per virtual machine, 512GB of memory per virtual machine and a new VHDX virtual hard disk format that supports up to 16TB per virtual disk.

Finn calls much of these improvements "Top Gear numbers." He is referring to the British television show that tests high-end sports cars with incredible horsepower and even more incredible price tags and bought by very few people. "When Microsoft and VMware have these battles of how many VMs they can run on a single host, very few people will care," he says.

However, there are a few Top Gear improvements Finn applauds. As multi-core, multiprocessor servers came down in price, Hyper-V's CPU restrictions remained harsh. The increase to 160 will solve that. Likewise, support for only four cores doesn't cut it. The ability for each VM to support more virtual CPUs -- up to 32 -- is much more reasonable.

"There were some machines you didn't virtualize because you couldn't give them enough processing power. Now we'll be able to virtualize that machine," he says. These are applications like a large database server, or a middle-tier application server that requires a lot of computation power. Putting these into virtual machines will give them the flexibility and high availability that virtualization offers.

Hyper-V will also leapfrog VMware when it comes to virtual networking, Schutz says. Hyper-V Extensible Switch lets third-party virtual switches plug into a Windows Server 8 network. So far, Cisco, Broadcom and NEC have all signed on to operate with it.

"A network admin can manage the Hyper-V Extensible Switch just like it was a physical switch and have a single tool set for managing Hyper-V, virtual networking and physical networking," Finn says.

ALLIES: Cisco and Microsoft cooperate to bring network-layer management to Hyper-V

Admins can perform packet filtering, intrusion detection, quality of service and packet tagging with the network tools they are already using, says Schutz. Extensible Switch allows Hyper-V users to use virtual switches from multiple companies. VMware only offers virtual networking segregation with Cisco gear, he contends.

That's not to say that Hyper-V lovers think everything in Hyper-V will outpace vSphere. Hyper-V will be playing catch-up in its support for NIC Teaming, otherwise known as link aggregation or load balancing. Microsoft currently doesn't support implementations that use it. When issues have cropped up, "we have [had] to rely on the hardware vendor -- HP, IBM -- and it was confusing," Finn says. This was so troublesome that he advised others to avoid load balancing with Hyper-V altogether. "A lot of people using VMware said they had NIC Teaming and wouldn't look at Hyper-V without it," he says.

With the new improvements, however, Finn says he is seeing growing interest among VMware users and fellow resellers to give Hyper-V a try. Until recently, many "had no interest in Hyper-V. They were hardcore vSphere users or VMware partners. Now they are asking us to demo Hyper-V. Customers are more price-sensitive and they are also acknowledging improvements Microsoft has made."

Still, for now, VMware rightly points out that Windows Server 8 Hyper-V is all talk. "Microsoft is talking about a product that most in the industry predict will ship in the second half of 2012. So customers will need to wait another nine to 12 months before they can reap the benefits of capabilities that VMware has, in many cases, had for several years," Chuang says.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.


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