Virtual Server Grows Up
Beta Man highlights the enhancements Service Pack 1 brings to Virtual Server 2005.
Unless you've been living in some other virtual universe, you know that last year Microsoft acquired Virtual PC and Virtual Server from Connectix. After updating Virtual Server earlier this year, Microsoft is giving it more muscle with its first Service Pack. The new Virtual Server
2005 (VS2005) hints at the solidified virtualization strategy that Microsoft announced at the Microsoft Management Summit last April in Las Vegas. It's part of a larger series of announcements about how future versions of Windows will incorporate virtualization as a key feature and how Microsoft will leverage hardware-level virtualization coming from AMD and Intel.
First and foremost among the key enhancements in VS2005 is extended guest operating system support that includes Linux variants, x86-based Solaris and other x86-based operating systems. This is in stark contrast to Microsoft's earlier controversial decision to discontinue supporting these operating systems as guests on Virtual PC.
Virtual Server has always been able to run non-Windows operating systems, but this makes it official. Having VS2005 support non-Windows operating systems is a sensible decision for Microsoft because it helps position the product as a means to migrate Linux- or Unix-based applications to Windows by running them on a virtual machine.
Virutal Server 2005
Service Pack 1
Version reviewed: Beta
Current status: Beta
Expected release: Late 2005
Elsewhere on the compatibility front, Microsoft plans to license VS2005's virtual hard disk (VHD) format royalty-free. This will make it easier for Microsoft partners and customers to create applications using this format.
Microsoft partners will also find it easier to develop products like migration solutions, management solutions and vertical-market applications around VS2005. This new licensing model will help make VS2005 an open and programmable platform.
New Power, New Manageability
The new service pack for VS2005 will run on 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2003 in native mode, which lets it take advantage of the increased memory and processing power available on 64-bit servers. VS2005 will not, however, support 64-bit Windows as a guest operating system. That means guests will continue to run only x86-compatible operating systems and applications.
This is not a serious limitation since most VS2005 customers are running Windows NT 4.0 and Windows Server 2000 guests to consolidate legacy application servers. Being able to host VS2005 on a 64-bit server greatly increases the number of virtual machines a single server can host and boosts virtual machine performance.
Microsoft will soon ship a Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) management pack for VS2005. With this, companies using MOM will have a centralized health and performance console for both the VS2005 host and the guest virtual machines running under VS2005. This level of management has always been an important missing link--and a key competitive advantage for VMware's GSX Server.
By providing VS2005 manageability through MOM, instead of a dedicated console (as GSX Server does), Microsoft helps further integrate VS2005 with the Windows environment.
Even if you aren't using VS2005 and have no plans to do so, it's an important product to watch. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said recently that we can expect to see virtualization become a core part of Windows. Ballmer said virtualization would be integrated into Windows in the Longhorn time frame and will be built on Microsoft's "Hypervisor" (its new code-name for virtual computing) technology. Hypervisor now refers to both full-virtualization technologies like Virtual PC and VMware, and OS-level virtualization like SWsoft's Virtuozzo (see "Virtual Servers in the Real World," October 2004).
The software described here is incomplete and still under development; expect it to change before its final release--and hope it changes for the better.
Software virtualization will go through some major changes, however, as Intel releases "Vanderpool" and AMD releases "Pacifica." These hardware-based virtualization solutions promise greater flexibility, stability and performance for virtual machines. Obviously, that special hardware will only work with OS support, which is where the integrated virtualization targeted for Longhorn should come into play.
For now, we're stuck with pure-software virtualization. I caught a demonstration of VS2005 SP1 running on a four-way AMD 64-bit server, next to a similarly equipped server running 32-bit processors. The performance difference was astounding. I hadn't expected much, but some informal testing (Microsoft doesn't allow formal benchmarking of beta products) suggested potential performance gains in the 25 percent to 30 percent range.
In practical terms, that means a 64-bit server previously capable of running six virtual machines at an acceptable performance level could run as many as eight at that same performance level. That's a significant difference, although the increased price for 64-bit servers doesn't make it a free upgrade.
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I've always been disappointed that VS2005 relies on a Web-based interface instead of a more robust Microsoft Management Console snap-in. I get how cool Web consoles are, but I'd bet an MMC-based management tool would work much more like GSX Server's superior tools.
You can recreate a similar experience with Windows 2003's Remote Desktop console, but that doesn't provide features like integrated access to virtual machine settings and resource allocations. The Remote Desktop approach doesn't work for non-Windows operating systems either, which Microsoft is now formally supporting in VS2005. I'd hoped that the next service pack for VS2005 would include a more robust console, but it looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer.
Still, as a free upgrade to VS2005, SP1 is a must-have. The performance gains for 64-bit machines could make VS2005 one of the "killer apps" (the other major one being SQL Server) that really push those boxes--and licenses for the 64-bit edition of Windows 2003. With support for non-Windows OSes, Microsoft makes a welcome acknowledgement of today's business realities. It's also a clever strategic move to help Windows capture some market share from Linux variants.