In-Depth

Hyper-V on the Rise: Will It Take Over with 3.0?

As Microsoft's decidedly improved hypervisor continues to grow with each upgrade, it's starting to draw more and more attention from the enterprise and third-party vendors.

When Microsoft entered the hypervisor market nearly five years ago with the release of Hyper-V, experts regarded it as a cheap imitation of the VMware ESX virtualization platform. Hyper-V was inferior to ESX in many regards but most notably because it was complex, didn't perform as well and was more difficult to manage. But it did have one advantage: It was free and was offered as an integral component of Windows Server.

Just as Microsoft seeded the browser market by bundling Internet Explorer with the Windows client and IIS and Active Directory with Windows Server, the company had hoped to virtualize every x86 server by including Hyper-V with the OS. It didn't quite work out that way, and VMware Inc. remains the dominant provider of hypervisors and VM management software. While VMware's growth has slowed, it still shows no imminent risk of losing its place as the leading supplier of hypervisors and virtualization software.

Nevertheless, with last year's release of Hyper-V 3.0 in Windows Server 2012, the Microsoft hypervisor has emerged as a more viable and credible option for virtualizing enterprise workloads than it was in 2008. Hyper-V is also a key pillar of the so-called Microsoft Cloud OS, which consists of Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012, Windows Azure and the recently announced Windows Azure Pack, which allows enterprises and hosting providers to provide their own Windows Azure instances atop Windows Server.

Hyper-V Was 'Just a Toy'
Microsoft entered the hypervisor market with the release of Windows Server 2008, and the second release arrived with Windows Server 2008 R2, which showed some improvement but was still not deemed suitable for large-scale workloads.

Hyper-V has a greater amount of flexibility and is a little more stable."

Bruce Otte, Director, SmartCloud Platform and Workload Services, IBM Corp.

"In the early days it was sort of just a toy," says George Teixeira, founder and CEO of DataCore Software, a longtime Microsoft partner that provides a storage virtualization platform. "Organizations would have it but they weren't really doing anything with it."

In addition to enterprises, many hosting and cloud providers also passed on using Windows Server and Hyper-V as the platform for their services.

"Hyper-V was just not really ready, and System Center and VMM [Virtual Machine Manager] were just pathetic types of solutions to manage a cloud environment until System Center 2012 came out," says Ken Owens, chief scientist at cloud services provider Savvis. Now a subsidiary of telecommunications provider CenturyLink Inc., Savvis has built its cloud services on the complete VMware virtualization and cloud management stack. Asked if there's a day when it might offer Hyper-V-based cloud services now that the Microsoft product is vastly more robust, Owens says he's not ready to make any commitments -- but he's not ruling it out, either.

"It got really interesting in terms of what Microsoft is doing, and it's not just the hypervisor level, but the management of the hypervisor environments with the ability to manage multiple libraries and multiple templates together," Owens says. "That has started the evaluation of how would we build a cloud with Microsoft."

Upping the Ante
Hyper-V 3.0 upped the ante for the Microsoft hypervisor with features such as concurrent live migration, dynamic memory, Hyper-V Replica, major improvements to storage, and continuous availability with clusters that can support 8,000 VMs running on 64 nodes (up from just 1,000 VMs running on 16 nodes). Hyper-V also offers major network virtualization improvements.

And Hyper-V is set to get better with this year's release of Windows Server 2012 R2, which will gain Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) security support, SCSI Boot, automatic activation of VMs, VM copy and paste, live migration improvements, shared VHDX, Linux guest support and Hyper-V Replica improvements. Moreover, the improved Windows Server and Hyper-V releases will let IT pros more easily manage Linux and Unix VMs.

According to Redmond magazine's 2013 readership survey, 61 percent of 1,153 respondents said they use VMware for virtualization, while 44 percent said they use Microsoft (naturally, multiple answers were permitted here). Citrix Systems Inc. also came in strong with 29 percent, while 12 percent chose products from Oracle Corp. and 8 percent chose Red Hat Inc.

IDC analyst Al Gillen says that, as of the end of the first quarter of this year, Hyper-V's share of the hypervisor market has increased to 28.4 percent from 24.6 percent in 2011. However, despite its growing share, Gillen notes that very few organizations are ripping out their existing hypervisor platforms. Nevertheless, he says IT decision makers who once wrote off Hyper-V are now running their workloads on it.

"With Windows Server 2012, there aren't many customers who would look at it and say [Hyper-V] isn't ready for prime time," Gillen says. "A lot of the share gain we're seeing is [for new installations] rather than a replacement effect."

Bruce Otte, director of IBM SmartCloud Platform and Workload Services, says since Microsoft released Hyper-V 3.0, a growing number of customers are choosing it for new infrastructure. "Hyper-V has a greater amount of flexibility and is a little more stable," Otte says. "The other thing I attribute it to is Microsoft provided a virtualized license participation program that allows you to lower your license fees if you use their Hyper-V and monitoring and management stack. It's almost free."

While IBM has standardized its cloud portfolio and services on OpenStack, the open source cloud operating environment also recently gained improved support for Hyper-V. Among other extensions, the Microsoft hypervisor is now an official plug-in in the latest release of OpenStack, called "Grizzly."

Third Parties Now on Board
As a result of the long-awaited improvements to Hyper-V and a seeming willingness by IT decision makers to deploy it for new systems, the partner ecosystem is expanding. A growing number of infrastructure vendors that have waited on the sidelines are now finding Hyper-V is ready for prime time. At the recent Microsoft TechEd conference in New Orleans, a number of suppliers of infrastructure software and hardware announced support for Hyper-V. Among them were A10 Networks Inc., ExtraHop Networks Inc., F5 Networks Inc. and Riverbed Technology. Also Oracle announced in late June that it's burying the hatchet with Microsoft and the two companies are now collaborating to make some of their products work together. The announcement suggested that Hyper-V will work better with Oracle databases and applications.

Riverbed's new Hyper-V support includes its Stingray Traffic Manager 9.2, a load balancer launched at TechEd that can run as a software virtual appliance for the latest Hyper-V release.

Asked why it's taken Riverbed five years to support Hyper-V, Venugopal Pai, Riverbed's VP of alliances, says until the release of Hyper-V 3.0, the company didn't see it widely deployed for functions such as network connectivity and disaster recovery. "With the adoption of Windows Server 2012 becoming stronger, Hyper-V becomes a real choice," Pai says. "We're seeing more and more of our enterprise custom­ers wanting to get that choice from us as well."

F5 has also started talking up its support for Hyper-V, claiming it will be the first vendor to add support for environments with Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation (NVGRE). Its BIG-IP gateways will support NVGRE early next year, making it possible to extend Windows Server networks to Windows Azure and other environments using network virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN), says Jeff Bellamy, F5 global director of business development focused on the company's partnership with Microsoft.

A10, which launched its 64-bit AX Application Delivery Controller (ADC), also has added Hyper-V support for the first time. Until now, A10 load balancers were designed to work only with VMware hypervisors.

Finally, ExtraHop launched an application performance management (APM) offering that runs as a Hyper-V virtual appliance, utilizing the new Hyper-V virtual switch capability. ExtraHop's recent announcement that it's supporting Hyper-V for its APM software and appliances will make it easier to track SharePoint instances running on the Microsoft hypervisor, according to Erik Giesa, ExtraHop senior vice president of marketing.

With all these major providers of load balancers, ADCs and networking gear, among others, finally giving Hyper-V the nod, does that mean the Microsoft offering's share of the hypervisor market will catapult at the expense of VMware and others? IDC's Gillen says the moves are certainly worth noting.

"For a vendor to support Hyper-V, it's another platform to support that entails a significant cost, so they have to know there will be some return on that investment," Gillen says. "When a vendor makes a commitment to support Hyper-V, they're expecting some kind of return, which means it's ready for prime time and chances are good they're getting inquiries from customers. They wouldn't be doing it if they felt the customers would avoid it.

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