Remember the days of Windows NT Server? I was among the many who mocked it as a serious data center server operating system. Then came Windows 2000 Server, and perceptions began to change. With the release of Windows Server 2003, Microsoft turned the tide of server OS dominance in the data center, placing Microsoft on a path to where the majority of servers would run a Windows OS. What initially seemed like a pipe dream became reality, and I was among many who were wrong about Microsoft’s chances as a dominant server OS vendor.

That takes us to last week’s Microsoft Build conference, where Microsoft demonstrated several significant feature enhancements coming to the next generation of Hyper-V. If you compare Hyper-V maturity to Windows Server OS maturity, this could be the equivalent to Windows Server 2003. Microsoft unveiled many new features that positions Hyper-V as a serious enterprise-grade virtualization platform.

I was most impressed by the improved virtual switch architecture and extensibility features. For years, I had seen the lack of extensibility and monitoring capabilities in the Hyper-V virtual switch architecture as a barrier to supporting multitenant environments. While Hyper-V today can offer unicast isolation for traffic on shared virtual switches and support VLANs, it does not support any type of port spanning or promiscuous monitoring. That made it difficult to monitor and enforce network security in Hyper-V virtual networks, and have made the hypervisor ill-suited for some large enterprise and many cloud IaaS scenarios. Those barriers are removed in Windows 8.

In addition to rich network monitoring and enforcement capabilities, Hyper-V’s extensible switch architecture opens the door for technology partners in the networking and security space to reside in the Hyper-V fabric. Cisco has already announced support for the Nexus 1000V on Windows 8 Hyper-V. I expect other leading players in the networking and security space to follow suit. Juniper, HP, Riverbed, and F5 are good candidates to also offer Hyper-V virtual network appliances. Citrix is already there (i.e., NetScaler VPX for Hyper-V).

One other architectural element of significance is that virtual networking and security requirements are embedded in each Hyper-V VM’s metadata file. So prior to any live migration job, for example, a VM’s underlying third party dependencies are validated on a target host. Keeping relevant network and security metadata with the VM ensures that mobility constraints can always easily be validated before any migration job. These features are significant. Having an extensible network architecture, extensible VM metadata, and extensible management (i.e., via the System Center suite and third party integration) isn’t Microsoft following VMware. It’s leadership. I have communicated extensibility requirements to VMware for years, and I’m happy to see Microsoft stepping up and addressing customer and partner extensibility requirements.

There are numerous feature enhancements in Windows 8 that address scalability, performance, security, storage, and management. Rather than offer a list, these posts offer really good rundowns of the forthcoming improvements:

Finally, I think it’s important to consider the potential industry impact. Paul Maritz is intimately familiar with the Microsoft playbook. He knows exactly what Microsoft is doing in terms of strategy and execution. At this point, the question is whether Hyper-V can realize the same success Microsoft saw with the release of Windows Server 2003. Microsoft doesn’t have to match VMware feature-for-feature. It simply needs a good enough alternative with all of the features that enterprises care about. That being said, changing a hypervisor can be a very costly endeavor. The typical enterprise has invested in operational software (e.g., security, backup, orchestration, capacity management) that directly ties into the vSphere hypervisor. Replacing a hypervisor doesn’t simply mean converting a VM format. There are numerous potential costly implications for operational/management software updates or replacement, training, and process updates. So even if organizations are really excited by Windows 8 Hyper-V, I don’t expect wholesale migrations.

Instead, incremental deployments to a new Hyper-V infrastructure are more likely. That might begin with a refresh of Microsoft’s next generation server applications (e.g., Exchange, SQL Server, and SharePoint). That early success could lead to further migrations at the refresh interval of other applications. For VMware’s part, it will need to espouse the benefits of staying single hypervisor as part of hybrid cloud architectures, and make the case for the value of homogeneity across its integrated product portfolio.

Does the hypervisor follow the way of the database server, where enterprises rely on both Oracle and Microsoft, for example, for different classes of workloads? Or do organizations stay mostly homogenous? I think that a parallel to the database server market is a possibility, but to be clear, this is far from an apples-to-apples comparison. For example, multiple hypervisors also bring with them added complexity when it comes to supporting business continuity and disaster recovery. Resources may be bound to specific clusters by hypervisor association, making it impossible to simply move a resource to another hypervisor running on systems with spare capacity in order to resolve a performance spike (QA processes typically include the hypervisor, so while V2V conversions/migrations are technically possible, they’re typically not practical for dealing with real time performance issues). For DR, organizations may need to pre-stage multiple hypervisors at a DR site, potentially adding to the cost of infrastructure required to support DR. The intricacies of multi-hypervisor support is a very long discussion, and definitely beyond the scope of this post.

Regardless of where you sit in terms of hypervisor loyalty, you will benefit when Windows 8 ships. Organizations that wish to remain homogenous VMware shops will be able to put more price pressure on VMware during contract renewals. Organizations that wish to be more heterogeneous in their approach to virtualization will benefit from a lower-cost and robust platform from Microsoft, that on paper today looks very promising.

I said quite a bit and did a lot of thinking out loud in this post. I would love to hear your thoughts.


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