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Microsoft's licence riddles give Linux and pals a free ride to virtual domination

Hyper-V: The right answer to the wrong question

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

What type of Unix are you?

If you're not a Unix type, you might not have met “OS-level virtualisation” before. Sometimes called “OS partitioning”, it's quite common in the Unix world. Instead of emulating a whole computer and installing another OS in it, this type of virtualisation walls off a single process (and any child processes) in a separate, isolated memory space, with its own config files and its own libraries, its own IP address, and so on – but running on the same kernel as the rest of the OS. To the OS, it's a process; as far as that process is concerned, it has the entire computer to itself. You just make a duplicate copy of as much or as little of the host's “userland” – the various programs that make up the parts of the OS that your app interacts with – as the app needs. So, for instance, one Virtuozzo partition could run Exchange Server 2003 and another ES 2007 on the same copy of Windows – something normally impossible.

This stuff has been a standard feature in the commercial-Unix world for years, where like on Windows, deploying additional OS licences can get spendy. On Linux, where the OS costs nothing, it's never caught on as much – although Docker is gaining traction and might change that.

But it's also an ideal fit for Windows Server, because it cuts right through several serious problems. In no particular order – because everyone's priorities are different...

It sorts out the labyrinthine licensing. With the most basic kind of OS-level virtualisation, you're only running a single copy of the OS, so that's all you have to license. Obviously, apps are separate but their licensing isn't a technical problem, it's a commercial one.

It's massively more efficient than whole-system virtualisation – each instance only needs enough storage and CPU for that app and its config files, not a whole host OS.

The same advantages Microsoft is using to peddle Hyper-V would apply: an all-Microsoft stack, managed with Microsoft tools from top to bottom.

They won't drop the banana

And there's still a role for Microsoft's Hyper-V. The acquisition of Connectix wouldn't be wasted. Windows isn't the world's most scalable OS – for a machine with dozens of CPU cores and RAM edging into terabyte levels, you'll probably want to run a few separate copies on top of Hyper-V. And of course Hyper-V would still be great for running different versions of Windows on the same host, or for running other OSes.

Compared to conventional whole-system virtualisation, a containerised Windows setup would be cheaper, simpler, easier to license and manage, and more efficient – especially for VDI deployments, where it even offers advantages over Terminal Server. It would offer Microsoft a decisive advantage over VMware. It would even go some way toward levelling the battlefield versus FOSS cloud solutions – love it or hate it, Windows offers some great development and management tools compared to any of the free OSes.

Windows doesn't include this functionality – but Parallels does, which shows that it's perfectly doable. Either by acquiring it or copying it, the way is open to Microsoft. Not only would it be a really good deal for its customers, meaning a more competitive product, but it would dramatically lower the resource footprint of hosted Azure servers as well.

But the problem is, of course, that it means letting go of an awful lot of OS licensing revenue up front. It might be necessary to take the hit now in order to stay in the game later. And that's what I'm betting Microsoft's new, post-Ballmer management won't have the nerve to do. They have a fistful of banana and they won't want to let go... even though there's a big gang of penguins closing in, with a mean look in their eyes and big clubs. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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