Estimated reading time: 6 mins
The last six weeks have been an interesting time in the world of virtualization. In late June Microsoft released their final version of Hyper-V, their new virtualization platform built into Windows Server 2008. Hyper-V has been widely anticipated, as Microsoft’s absence from the enterprise virtual market has left VMWare and some smaller players free to establish over the last few years. Their arrival, based on what you read or hear, varies from indifference to claims that VMWare is about to become the Netscape of the virtual world.
Only time will tell, but a week after Microsoft’s announcement, VMWare ‘stunned’ the IT world with the announcement that one of its co-founders and President, Diane Greene, was leaving and being replaced by Paul Maritz, an ex-Microsoft veteran. This announcement also included an advisory that their forecast of 50% growth in 2008 was now not expected.
The reason that many commentators are seeing Microsoft’s new product as a threat is a simple one – cost. Microsoft is embedding Hyper-V into Windows Server 2008 – therefore the cost is part of an OS that most companies are going to purchase anyway. This is not to say that the industry is not realistic – Hyper-V lacks the maturity of VMWare’s ESX platform, and in terms of functionality Microsoft is still a way off. However Hyper-V’s initial release allows Microsoft to position themselves at the lower end of the market and pick of the SMBs – an area where VMWare’s ESX platform has struggled to penetrate due to its cost model.
So, everyone was ready to watch the next six months and see how the battle would progress. It would appear though that VMWare didn’t seem willing to wait that long – last week VMWare announced that as of the 28th July, their newest product, ESX 3i, would become a free product. VMWare have employed this tactic before – they relaunched ESX’s predecessor GSX as VMWare Server and made it free, allowing more people to get their feet wet in virtualization. Microsoft and others followed suit by giving away their equivalent products.
I will take a moment to explain VMWare’s ESX 3 and ESX 3i products – both are ‘bare-metal’ products in that they install directly to the hardware (the same way Windows does) to ensure the least layers between the physical kit and the virtual machine created on top of the platform. The main difference between the two is that ESX, the original product was based on a custom Linux platform to interact and provide an OS for the user. ESX 3i on the other hand strips away the Linux/Service console to a ‘pure’ hypervisor with a footprint on the server of only 32MB. This has allowed VMWare to enter agreements with all the major server manufacturers to have their servers hold the installation pre-loaded when shipped.
Citrix XenServer also resides bare-metal, but has various restrictions on what processor features are enabled to allow certain OS systems. Microsoft Hyper-V also requires all the processor virtualization features enabled but works only on x64 processors and of course Windows 2008 to be installed. So for the moment, VMWare continues to have the easiest and widest range of options for the consumer in terms of implementation.
If you haven’t looked at virtualization yet there are some very good reasons to take the plunge.
- Hardware – The wonderful people at Intel and AMD like to try and outdo each other every six months. Lucky for us this means more and more processing power landing in a standard server. Quad-core processors are now commonplace (with 6-core apparently on the way next year) meaning the amount of servers you can virtualize on to a standard server is now far greater than even two years ago. In terms of memory, the cost has also dropped significantly meaning that virtualization does not mean starving your virtual machines of memory.
- Green Issues and Physical Infrastructure – everyone knows about carbon footprints and this is no different in the computing world. VMWare has a carbon calculator on its website which will give you an impression of what virtualization can save in terms of money, trees etc. However putting the green issue aside there are more practical advantages of virtualization – namely power. A few years ago one of the sites hosting our servers used floor space as a metric for billing. Last year that changed – now it is all about power. Ironically this is partly due to virtualization, in that companies can host what would previously take up multiple racks in a single rack of servers.
- IT Staff Overhead – always the most intangible to try and define or measure, but imagine your IT departments daily workload to include changing failed components, backups, patching and deployment of new servers. virtualization changes this – you still have server maintenance albeit far reduced as the amount of physical kit is lessened. Backups and patching can be done from central systems – however the biggest advantage of virtualization is the ability to create a new server quickly and efficiently. This is particularly useful in the development world where you can ‘deploy and destroy’ test machines but this is not the only application. Imagine you have a virtualized web platform and you need to (either due to unexpected demand or regular peak periods) increase server numbers to deal with load. virtualization can allow cloning of these servers – avoiding further code deployments and allowing the performance to be improved in minutes rather than hours.
- Future Deployment Options – In the past, if your company bought a new software product it was either your staff or an expensive consultant coming in to complete and sanitize the install. Either way the company incurred a cost in getting the basic system in and running. These days however the virtual appliance has made this process easier to avoid – VMWare, Microsoft and numerous third-party vendors including Jumpbox provide pre-built installations of any major OS and pre-configured apps such as forums, wikis and the more complicated security products that would discourage many from even attempting an install to evaluate a product. You simply download the image of the virtual machine; start it up and voilà – instant application.
All of these may have differing levels of interest to the individual, but it is worth anyone in the IT world at least considering those servers which sit in their numbers in data centers and trickle along doing little. These include such servers as domain controllers, print servers, file servers which invariably sit on server hardware and yet most likely display less utilization in terms of processor and memory than an employee’s desktop on a standard workday.
We can assume safely that hardware manufacturers are going to pack more and more power into their kit in the coming years. It is looking likely that a pitch battle over the cost of virtual software between the industry software giants is also close at hand.