Is Microsoft Hyper-V really free?

We all know that it costs nothing to install Microsoft’s Virtual Server hypervisor, right? Hyper-V is a free add-on for Windows Server 2008. Well, yes and no. Let’s clear away some of the chaff that’s obscuring the truth here, by listing the Yes’s and No’s of this matter:

Is Microsoft Hyper-V really free?

• Yes, Hyper-V is indeed free to add on to any existing Server 2008 R2 installation.

• Yes, it’s free to set up a guest, too, assuming that guest is properly licensed.

• No, that isn’t the end of the matter. There’s another product that’s free called Microsoft Hyper-V Server. In this case, the free download isn’t simply an add-on to the paid-for server you’re setting up already, but is an entire, bootable, free virtual machine host OS.

• No, this isn’t a way of getting a “cheap copy of Windows Server” because Hyper-V Server has had almost all of the front-end GUI chopped off. Once it finishes installing, there are a couple of command line windows that open up for final configuration – and that’s it. Further management will be possible, but only by using the RSAT (Remote Server Administration Tools) and/or the appallingly named System Center Virtual Machine Manager (hereinafter referred to as SCVMM).

• No, RSAT and SCVMM aren’t even subsets of one another, let alone synonyms. They do perform some of the same jobs, but not all. SCVMM, in particular, is the smart bit that helps you once your VM count rises above a pretty small number.

Now, be honest: had you realised that Hyper-V Server existed and was free to download? Again, I think that an early adopter problem lies behind the scenes here. Almost all the IT research people within an organisation of any size have an MSDN or Technet subscription, which allows them to download enough copies of full-fat versions of all Microsoft’s products to take care of any need they may have for demos of a particular technology. What are the odds that your pub mate who knows a bit has had a quick look through the Hyper-V role in Server 2008, but hasn’t looked for a matching free download outside the bountiful world of Technet, so his advice stops there?

The chances that this is the dominant factor are strengthened by the disreputable history of abuse of MSDN versions of operating systems. It’s only fairly recently that Microsoft has limited the number of installs permitted per MSDN account, per product. I say “permitted” here because that isn’t quite the same as “possible”.

At the very simplest level, Pub Advice Rules include the concept of Winding Up Your Mates.

Many MSDNers tell me that they reuse their apparently single-use COAs over and over again – although, to be honest, I’m not sure this fully represents the complexity of the situation. At the very simplest level, Pub Advice Rules include the concept of Winding Up Your Mates. Imagine that your technology planning is being done by Al Murray’s Pub Landlord character, where every so often he slips in a complete fib just for the sake of wickedness, and to check that you’re actually in need of his advice. If you don’t implement his suggestion and find out that it’s a fake, then he’ll know that actually it’s you who are winding him up. And people wonder why I stick to official sources!

It’s important to discover whether you’ve been saddled with an unusual licence by way of the Pub Advice system, whether it’s for servers or workstations. When it comes to servers, MSDN versions may not accept all the available updates, or could end up simply refusing to run.

I’ve been assured by Microsoft’s Licensing Support department that Vista and Windows 7 machine licences obtained via MSDN last longer than the underlying subscription. On the other hand, I’ve also seen surprising licence messages that nobody was expecting, such as an English ex-pat in Switzerland who, after several months in his new job, turned on his IBM laptop running Vista to be greeted with the message that “You are running a regionally activated copy of Windows and have moved outside your region”. (Don’t try Googling for that exact message because I paraphrase – it left him in such a de-activated mental state that he couldn’t capture the exact wording for me). But be honest, did you have any idea that anyone – whether company, private individual, MSDN subscriber, demo or any other possible category – would ever be asked for a “regionally activated licence”?

Note that in this incident there was no need for anyone involved in the chain of ownership and configuration of that laptop to be maliciously minded: it would never occur to the traditional Pub Advisor that this laptop was intending to commit a breach of Microsoft’s intellectual property rights further down the track – just as the various problems common to long-term use of MSDN server licences aren’t apparent at the time of installation or commissioning.

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