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Microsoft throws Hyper-V R2 into the ring

Takes metal chair to VMware

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Microsoft has picked a fight with VMware's ESX Server hypervisor, offering up a freebie download of its own Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 hypervisor on the opening day of the VMware-backed VMworld in San Francisco.

If you have a hankering to do server virtualization Microsoft-style, you can download Hyper-V R2 here.

Hyper-V R2 is a standalone hypervisor, which means you can get it all by its lonesome or as a part of the Windows Server 2008 distribution, where it is distributed as an add-on. According to the Microsoft download site, Hyper-V R2 requires at least a 1.4 GHz processor and Microsoft recommends chips run at 2 GHz or faster. The chips must have Intel VT or AMD-V hypervisor electronics cooked into their circuits. Certain security features (such as Intel XD and AMD NX) have to be enabled on the chips too.

Microsoft is revved up that Hyper-V R2 includes a Live Migrate feature like all grown-up hypervisors have these days, enabling workloads running inside a virtual machine atop a hypervisor on a physical server to be teleported across the network to another hypervisor on another physical box (while they're still running). This allows server maintenance without having to shutdown applications, and for a lot of small and medium businesses, it gives them a modicum of disaster recovery that was beyond their IT experience and budgets until now. In fact, Hyper-V R2 includes a feature called High Availability, which automatically restarts VMs running on one server if it crashes on another machine so designated as a backup on the network.

These Live Migration and High Availability features of Hyper-V R2 can be managed from System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, from Windows Server 2008 R2 and its Failover Cluster Manager/Hyper-V Manager tab, or from the similar (and free) Failover Cluster Manager/Hyper-V Manager tab that Microsoft is putting into the forthcoming Windows 7 client.

Back in May, Jeff Woolsey, program manager for Windows Server and Hyper-V at Microsoft, was bragging about how free was a lot cheaper than what VMware was charging for the vSphere stack, which ranged from $13,470 for a three-node cluster of two-socket x64 servers to $44,900 for a five-node cluster of four-socket servers. There are a lot of ways to dice and slice VMware pricing, and these were not flattering numbers to be sure - and ones that VMware enthusiasts were quick to point out were full of holes.

The amazing thing is that even with so many free alternatives, VMware still has the lion's share of deployments in the data center when it comes to x64 virtualization. The reason is simple. VMware is the safe choice, just like IBM mainframes and minicomputers were for decades, and Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems Unix boxes were during the open systems revolution. The first pass of Hyper-V was missing key features that SMBs as well as large enterprises needed, and while we can talk about how many millions of Hyper-V licenses might be out there in the data center, it is probably a fair guess that most of the Hyper-V downloads and licenses out there are not being used in production, just like those millions of Solaris 10 licenses that Sun used to brag about before it sold out to Oracle. Or to Wall Street. Or to some other devil.

Make no mistake. Hyper-V R2 is a watershed event for Microsoft and SMBs in that it is probably good enough for a lot of companies and a hell of a lot better than what they had for disaster recovery and flexibility in the past, which was a tape cassette of dubious value.

VMware has lots of momentum. And it has a freebie ESXi hypervisor and soon a freebie VMware Go hosted management tool aimed right at SMBs. But for a lot of SMB customers, Microsoft is the safe choice. And it will be interesting to see how Hyper-V deployments - not downloads, not licenses shipped on a server or on a DVD - actually stack up against ESX Server and ESXi deployments. And then there is the matter of Citrix Systems and XenServer - not to mention Red Hat and Enterprise Virtualization. Maybe even Oracle and its Xen implementation.

This race is not over, and everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how it will turn out. Some people act like the race has already been won, by either VMware or Microsoft. The virtualization Fight Night is not just one round, but many. (We could argue over how many, too).

What seems clear is that there are a few of different fights when it comes to server virtualization: the freebie and mindshare starter virtualization aimed at SMBs; the high-end, sophisticated, and often expensive tools aimed at larger enterprises; and even more complex stuff reportedly aimed at public and private clouds. And none of them use any of these virtualization tools as yet because, let's face it, Amazon is basically the cloud so far, and it has cooked up its own Xen stack.

Betting against Microsoft in any of these fights is just plain stupid. But then again, VMware has done a pretty good job holding its ground thus far too. And Citrix has been shape-shifting for years, riding technology changes on desktops and in data centers. The uncertainty is what makes the fight interesting. ®

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