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Critiquing Microsoft's virtualization strategy

Microsoft can manage the virtual machine and the guest OS, but it doesn't push this potentially important management bonus – and it missed the boat with virtual desktops, too.

It's clear that Microsoft server virtualization solutions owe a huge debt to existing technologies, such as Microsoft Clustering Services. So it's not surprising that a company famous for operating systems believes the way forward is for the virtualization layer to be a function of the OS.

Because of this philosophy, Windows 2008 R2 Server Core edition is the closest Microsoft product that resembles a hypervisor (as I would define it). Despite being paired down to the bare bones, Hyper-V still has a great deal of files, services and applications that you won't find in ESX, Kernel-based Virtual Machine virtualization or Xen.

With that said, this rather dry, academic debate of what constitutes a hypervisor will not keep most chief technology officers awake at night. All they care about is deploying a virtualization platform that is reliable, stable and efficiently utilizes their resources. Personally, I feel that Microsoft server virtualization is some ways off that mark, but with the introduction of Dynamic Memory and other resource management tools, I know Microsoft is not standing still. So here's a warning to Microsoft's competitors: keep innovating and aggressively marketing your products.

Microsoft's management advantage over VMware
For me, the strongest part of Microsoft server virtualization is that it owns what runs inside the vast majority of virtual machines (e.g., Microsoft Windows). On the other hand, VMware offers availability and performance management for VMs, but generally, these lack intelligence down into the guest operating system.

That said, VMware recently added perfmon .DLL's to vSphere 4, which are installed to Windows. A couple of .DLLs is one thing, but telling me about how my services are behaving and taking corrective action when they are naughty is not something that VMware currently offers.

Clearly with tools such as System Center Operation Manager, Microsoft can monitor the entire stack, including the guest operating system. So I was somewhat surprised to see that the course didn't tout Microsoft as the way to manage the hypervisor, VMs and operating system.

As the years roll by, I think VMware's position of, "We are a virtualization provider; we don't manage the guest operating system" has to change. Personally, I would like to see VMware develop or acquire an availability technology that runs inside the guest operating system and is easy to enable, like VMware High Availability or Fault Tolerance.

Late to the virtual desktop market
I think Microsoft has missed a trick in terms of virtual desktop offerings. It's a bit late to the market with its virtual desktop brokering system, RD Connection Broker. You would have thought the company would orchestrate its virtual desktops message as the way to deploy Windows 7, similar to what VMware and Citrix have done.

Again, with Microsoft owning the client, it could stress its "unique" technical ability to manage the client and the operating system with its application virtualization technology, such as Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V). Even though VMware and Citrix blazed a trail with the new, graphically rich PC-over-IP and High Definition User Experience display protocols, Microsoft announced it was working on the new RemoteFX protocol just last month.

Personally, I think that Microsoft could strengthen its offering by coupling its various technologies together. On that note, I thought it was entirely possible for the training course to cover Hyper-V, System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), Microsoft Desktop Broker and App-V. This would do a lot to flag up its commitment to virtualization throughout the stack layers.

Fundamental differences between Microsoft and VMware
In many respects, it's almost unfair to compare VMware and Microsoft server virtualization products because both companies have very different beginnings., VMware was fortunate to start from a blank slate when developing ESX and vCenter; unlike Microsoft, VMware didn't have to integrate legacy technologies.

Microsoft had existing availability and management solutions, which it reengineered for VM availability and management. For this reason, it feels like virtualization has been shoehorned into Microsoft's existing set of tools and philosophy.

I don't mean that a damning indictment -- it is what it is. In a way, comparing both companies is not unlike saying, "Why don't Japanese cars look and work the same as American cars?"

After all of that, if you assumed I'd tell you to stay away from Microsoft Hyper-V and SCVMM for the time being then you are wrong. Personally, I think that there may be strategic or complementary uses of different virtualization vendors if you are new to virtualization or an existing VMware customer.

For example, a small to medium-sized business could use Microsoft server virtualization in branch offices where the equivalent VMware technologies might be cost prohibitive from a licensing perspective.

Microsoft has a very aggressive licensing model, which makes its virtualization platform difficult to ignore, especially in the SMB market. There are many analysts who have shown that Hyper-V is significantly cheaper when working from the basic "list price" advertised on the VMware website. Many of these cost-based analyses, however, frequently underestimate the consolidation ratios achievable with VMware ESX.

Finally, when it comes to virtual desktop environments, I think it's worth assessing Citrix Systems XenServer and XenDesktop instead of VMware's or Microsoft's.

There are a couple of reasons why I think this complete approach might be useful. First, you are not excessively tied to one virtualization vendor; second, you can deploy the most appropriate virtualization solution that meets your needs for the situation; third, when it comes to license renewals and upgrades you are in a much stronger bargaining position if you are using more than one vendor.

Virtualization is a game changer. But in some respects, the rules of the game remain the same: play one vendor off another.


Mike Laverick (VCP) has been involved with the VMware community since 2003. Laverick is a VMware forum moderator and member of the London VMware User Group Steering Committee. Laverick is the owner and author of the virtualization website and blog RTFM Education, where he publishes free guides and utilities aimed at VMware ESX/VirtualCenter users, and has recently joined as an Editor at Large. In 2009, Laverick received the VMware vExpert award and helped found the Irish and Scottish VMware user groups. Laverick has had books published on VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3, VMware vSphere4 and VMware Site Recovery Manager.

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