In-Depth

Virtual Server Has Real Fans

Now that it's free and has "official" Linux support, users find Virtual Server 2005 R2 a more compelling option.

Microsoft's Virtual Server is gaining fast on market-leader VMware. Microsoft bought the core technology for Virtual Server from Connectix, and originally charged $199 for the enterprise edition and $99 for the standard version. When Virtual Server 2005 R2 Enterprise Edition debuted last April, Microsoft dropped the standard version altogether and made the enterprise edition a free download.

VSR2infoThe response was overwhelmingly positive. "It's Microsoft, it's free and I don't have to take any money out of my budget to give it a try. And it works great," says Tom Catalini, director of IT for William Gallagher Associates, an insurance firm in Boston.

Catalini just recently began experimenting with Virtual Server. By taking one physical server and using it to run multiple virtualized servers, Virtual Server lets him consolidate hardware while easing overall management. "Now I don't have to worry whether or not it's the same kind of machine with the same hardware and drivers," Catalini says. "By abstracting that hardware layer, I can port my applications wherever and whenever I need."

Users say server virtualization helps increase capacity without stretching the budget. "We'd love to have a full-fledged test center, with five or 10 machines, but we don't have the space or the equipment to do that," says David Feldman, director of IT at Orchard Place, a Des Moines, Iowa-based group that provides mental health and juvenile justice services for at-risk youths. "Using Virtual Server lets us get stuff accomplished with a lot less hardware."

Living La Vida Linux
One of the most important changes to Virtual Server R2 was Linux support. "I loved it before but it didn't do Linux, and because of that I had no use for it," says Randy Hinders, senior NT administrator at Donet Inc., an ISP in Dayton, Ohio. "Now that it's free and supports Linux, it's definitely an eye-opener." Donet is looking to offer Web hosting on virtualized servers, and many of its customers wanted to use Linux.

David Marshall and Wade Reynolds, both senior infrastructure architects at Austin, Texas-based Surgient Inc., agree that Linux support was critical. "People have been asking for Linux forever," Marshall says. "It was in the initial Connectix product and was pulled out, but a lot of people run both Windows and Linux, especially in testing, so that was a problem." He says you could virtualize Linux servers prior to R2, but it wasn't officially supported so it ran poorly.

Still, big Linux shops may want to consider VMware or the open source Xen server virtualization tool. "They currently support a wider variety of Linux distributions," Reynolds says.

Virtually Painless
Users give Virtual Server high marks for ease of use, especially when it comes to building a virtual machine (VM) and using the integrated Web-based management console. "It's definitely easy to learn, easy to install and easy to get your virtual machines created," says Reynolds. "You can do it with a lot less planning [than with VMware], so it's an easier point of entry."

The management console, because it's Web-based and not a typical MMC-type plug-in, is also easy to use. "The console is pretty intuitive," Hinders says. "If you're used to looking around Web sites, you shouldn't have any problem."

The console also has some features that other virtualization tools do not. "One nice feature is a thumbnail view of what's going on inside each virtual machine," Marshall says. "If you have your Web administrator interface up and you have 10 VMs running on that box, you can actually see a thumbnail image of what's on them."

Catalini also likes the console because of its portability and accessibility. He did add, however, that he doesn't use it much because he found it was easier to simply turn on remote management in the operating system itself. "That lets me use the remote desktop connection just like I do for any other server," he says. "You can't tell the difference."

Microsoft has also made licensing for virtualized servers more attractive. "Microsoft's making it hard to resist," says Michael Hanna, senior systems engineer at Infinity Network Services in Tallahassee, Fla. "You can run up to four virtual machines on an enterprise server if you're running Virtual Server. That alone is pretty compelling because, although I lean toward VMware, when you factor in the cost of licensing, the differences aren't enough. I'm not going to spend a couple thousand on licenses just because I like ESX a little better."

Starting Oct. 1, licensing becomes more compelling as Microsoft will let Windows 2003 Datacenter Edition users run an unlimited number of virtualized instances of Windows Server.

Not There Yet
Although Virtual Server meets users' needs right now, they have specific feature requests for future releases. "The only thing that's missing that I've noticed is the ability to do snapshots, where you can quickly revert back to a previous state," Feldman says.

Hinders says VMware enjoys a lead with its ability to take snapshots of guest operating systems. "But with Virtual Server, there's no automated way to do that. You can manually pause it, copy the Virtual Server file and restart it. For internal usage or testing, it's no big deal. But when you start taking this to production environments running mission-critical applications, you can't have that."

Different Strokes

There are two main flavors of server virtualization, and Microsoft has both covered. Microsoft's Virtual Server, like VMware's VMserver (previously called GSX server), is a hosted server virtualization platform. That means the virtualization software must run on a host operating system on the server hardware.

The other flavor is what Microsoft is calling Hypervisor, which requires no host OS prior to loading the virtualization software. VMware's ESX Server, XenSource's Xen and the virtualization functionality in Longhorn Server all employ a Hypervisor server virtualization layer.

Generally speaking, Hypervisor-type products minimize overhead for better performance and robustness. A main differentiator is cost. Most hosted types, like Virtual Server and VMserver, are free. Most Hypervisor products, like ESX Server, charge a licensing fee. Xen is an exception, because it's open source.

The Hypervisor capability in Longhorn is expected to become a part of the operating system, with no extra license required. -- J.C.

Virtual Server's robust scripting capabilities can help out there, other users say. "We could write a script that shuts down the servers at midnight, copies them to New Jersey, and then turns them back on again," Catalini says. "So I'd get the same thing, have a clean up-to-date copy, and there's no management overhead to doing that." He added that he would, however, prefer to eventually see an automated snapshot capability.

Another missing piece is support for 64-bit guest operating systems. Currently, Virtual Server will support a 64-bit operating system on the host machine, but not on the virtual servers. "That's going to be a big issue with the new Exchange, which is going to be 64-bit only," Hanna says. "Right now, we're constrained to actually use a 64-bit machine for testing when we'd like to virtualize it instead."

Virtual networking support is another element that is less than robust. "That's one area that VMware has over Virtual Server," Hanna says. "With VMware, you can go to your own virtual switch or subnets, and you have more options. You can create virtual networks in Virtual Server, but you essentially tie it to an adapter and that's it. It's not as granular."

Reynolds agrees, and says he'd like to see Virtual Server support 802.1Q VLAN tagging. "Virtual Server has a little bit of catch up to do with VMware on its robustness of virtual networking and virtual switches," he says.

Lack of virtual SMP support is also an issue. "With Virtual Server, you can do relative weight, but you can't specify [something like] this VM uses this percentage of this processor," Marshall says. "A nice [feature] to have for us would be virtual SMP support, so you can say it will share from these two processors out of these four, or something like that. Realistically, if you're trying to get into the production data center, you really do need to have a virtual SMP."

Still, readers say Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 is worth a look. "I'm pretty jazzed up about it," Catalini says. "Right now, I have rickety old PCs that are strung together. With this, I get to clean them up and they go away. Things are going to run on better hardware, be backed up more consistently, be more portable and recoverable and have cleaner configurations."

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