A virtual soliloquy

To Hyper-V or not to Hyper-V, that is the question. Microsoft has been curiously reluctant to move its virtualisation products forward over the past year, while all the fuss has been made by other players. We’ve seen big splashes being made by two basic groups of vendors, those who actually have a product – VMware, XenSource, VirtualBox – and those who want to put the magic V-word into their advertising spiel without actually having anything deliverable to deliver. Most notable among the latter group is Intel, though those American financial regulations about “forward-looking statements” and the share price have effectively gagged all the old FUD-spreaders at a single stroke.

A virtual soliloquy

I said “move its products forward” because, contrary to a few emails I’ve received, it wouldn’t be true to say that Microsoft doesn’t have an existing virtualisation product at all. As an aside, I do seem to have become an agony aunt for those who find their confusion or naïveté too embarrassing to expose in front of their colleagues, so you hardcore leading-edge techies please feel free to roll your eyes disapprovingly while I deal with everyone else’s confusion.

Microsoft has actually been in the virtualisation business for quite a while now. Virtual Server 2005 has a justified and stable following in the large network marketplace and, although it’s hard to get accurate information on the exact purpose to which Virtual Servers get put, there’s a pretty clear trend spreading across both large and small network sectors, that virtual Exchange Servers are a lot easier to live with than physical ones. If you’re running a big-iron server shop with the Microsoft Select corporate licence deal, then VS2005 was very likely easier to get hold of than VMware Server – given the fundamentalist mindset of defensive big-league IT admins, the CD included in a monthly MS shipment is far more acceptable than a download offered by a company that gets tutted at by your corporate firewall for including components sourced from BitTorrents (shock, horror!).

However, if you’re a small business then the position is reversed: VMware Server is just a program that can be installed or removed, either from your solitary server (which you really shouldn’t be testing it on in the first place) or from an XP workstation (which you also shouldn’t really use in an extended test configuration) without interfering with the rest of either machine’s setup. It runs on a variety of host operating systems, and scores more wins on the simplicity of the trial process than on the reputation of the vendor.

What has held MS Virtual Server 2005 back in the smaller business arena is that very few people want to do any machine upgrades, but the bigger the hardware the easier VS2005 is to implement. One medium-size company I visit regularly has a pool of spare servers, while almost none of the smaller companies I know of have any such thing. Small businesses were looking to encapsulate a troublesome machine by virtualising it, and taking a great step up in the hardware stakes was what they wanted most to avoid rather than being a solution.

I believe that late 2008 and early 2009 – despite the energy recession and credit crunch – will prove to be a period when a major series of changes are introduced in an entirely new way, by stealth. No big flashy product launches, no bold declaration of a new architecture, it’s rather that everyone is slowly discovering that their platforms are approaching some hard limits. Everyone tends to ignore the published limits for their server software platform, especially when everything is new and shiny and reaching those limits looks reassuringly expensive, but we’re very long in the tooth on our major business backbones these days and the basic limits of Windows Server 2003 are already looming through the dusk: 3.5GB of RAM is the practical limit for the 32-bit version, and 2TB of disk is a soft and confusing limit. Both of those limits have been gently bumped up against by the majority of my clients over the past 12 months, as you should have spotted if you’ve read my various essays on reducing duplicates, increasing disk subsystem performance, and berating untidy users.

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