Virtualization Infrastructure: Which platform is right for you?

Over the past year as a Virtual Partner Technology Advisor for Microsoft Canada I have heard a lot of people say a lot of things about Hyper-V, and not all of it has been from people who work for (or are otherwise strongly invested in) VMware.  Some of those arguments are reasoned, others emotional, but there are still a lot of people who argue that  because Hyper-V is free, it cannot be as good a product as vSphere.

While I understand the thinking, I feel it is a misconception to state that Hyper-V is completely free.  For most instances it is a role that comes with Microsoft Windows Server.  Just like you do not pay for DNS Server or Internet Information Systems (IIS), Hyper-V is included with the product that you use to install it.

Of course, there is also the free hypervisor, Microsoft Hyper-V Server.  It is a free download from Microsoft, which can be installed directly onto the hardware.  However once you install that, you are still going to install operating systems that you have paid for (or will pay for) into the virtual partitions.  Statistically a vast majority of those will be Microsoft Windows operating systems… either modern or legacy versions.

What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.  Tis dearness only that gives everything its value. –Thomas Paine

A Layer 1 Hypervisor (virtualization host platform) is, by definition, an operating system.  It is installed directly on the hardware (Ring –1).  However without another operating system – usually Windows – it does not do anything else.  So why should you pay for both the host operating system and the guest operating systems?  Microsoft does not believe you should have to, and so they give the hypervisor away for free.  In fact VMware does the same thing – ESXi is a free product as well.

In both the case of Microsoft’s Hyper-V and VMware’s ESXi the hypervisor is free, and it is only the management tools that you would pay for, and even that is not an entirely true statement.  You can download the vSphere client for free from vmware.com, just as you can download the Hyper-V Manager as part of the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) from microsoft.com, and both of these can be installed on any Windows-based server or client operating system.  So really it is only the infrastructure tools – the tools that manage features such as Failover Clustering (Microsoft) and High Availability (VMware), intelligent placement, load balancing, and others that cost, and it is true that these are going to cost less with Microsoft Virtualization than with VMware’s vSphere.

Does this argument make one better than the other?  Maybe… but exactly which is better may depend on who you ask.  There are many IT Pros who have been using VMware for years and swear by it, and even at a higher cost than Microsoft it is worth the money.  There are others who feel that in this day and age of trimming budgets and cutting costs the so-called ‘free’ Hyper-V is a better solution.  However a lot of the answer of ‘which is better’ will come down to the Universal Consultants’ Answer (UCA)… It depends.

When comparing the technologies side by side there are a number of factors we have to compare to determine the technological superiority of one over the other.

1. Performance

The first factor we have to consider is performance.  If Hyper-V does not work as well as ESXi then the comparison is irrelevant, just like it would be folly to compare a Porsche to a Fiat solely based on price.  The question will come down to this: on similar hardware will the platforms perform similarly?  In my tests (performed on both HP ProLiant and Dell PowerEdge server hardware) the performance of a virtual workload is similar – one or the other may perform up to 3-5% better depending on the actual workload type.  This is my experience, and unfortunately VMware’s End User License Agreement prohibits me from publishing comparative benchmarks.

2. Management Tools

If we can assume parity on training and competence on each platform (I hold both the VMware Certified Professional 4 and the Microsoft Certified IT Professional: Virtualization Administrator 2008 R2 certifications) then manageability will be divided into two compartments: 1) Do both platforms do everything that I need, and 2) How comfortable am I with the management tools available.

In my case, there is clear parity on features.  All of the components that I need and would use are in Hyper-V (taking into account that I have in all of my environments either System Center Virtual Machine Manager and System Center Operations Manager installed as management and monitoring components, or in the case of smaller networks the equivalent System Center Essentials (in the case of SWMI Consulting Group it is actually the HP Insight with Microsoft System Center Essentials 2010 offering).  With that being said, there are two components of VMware that I could see some organizations needing or, as is more often the case, wanting.  Those are Storage vMotion and Virtual Network Switches.

While I understand the theoretical desire for Storage vMotion, I am still always hesitant to use it in a production environment during busy times.  I admit I may be suffering from the same type of legacy mindset that I so often accuse others of falling into, but I just cannot see it as a good idea to move a .vmdk file from one SAN device to another while the virtual machine that is attached to that .vmdk file is operational.  I understand that the capability will be delivered with the next version of Hyper-V, and while I look forward to seeing it, I still do not think it is something I will do very often.

Of course Hyper-V has virtual networking as well, but there is no comparison between the two – VMware’s offering is much more robust than Microsoft’s.  With that being said, most companies don’t have a need for that robustness in their virtual networking – they have already invested in it in their physical networking, and have the CCNEs on staff to manage it.  While there are some companies that do have the need for features such as distributed virtual network switches (which I am told will be included in the next version of Hyper-V), I still suspect that most companies do not have such complex requirements.

As for the management console itself (vSphere Client versus Hyper-V Manager or System Center VMM) the jury is out… and irrelevant.  I may prefer chocolate ice cream, but that does not mean that someone else does not prefer vanilla nor that they would be wrong to.  I spend so much time in the System Center and MMC consoles that I was actually surprised to hear one of my students tell me recently that ‘I can’t get used to Microsoft’s management tools… vSphere is so much simpler!’  Just like that I was reminded that personal preference is so closely tied to our experience… someone who knows vSphere will absolutely prefer it, while someone looking at it for the first time might consider it difficult to navigate.

3. Support

VMware wants your vSphere environment to be managed by a VMware Certified Professional (VCP).  Likewise, Microsoft would prefer that your Hyper-V environment be managed by someone who at least holds a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist: Windows Server 2008 R2, Server Virtualization (MCTS).  Of course, if your IT guy is more of a generalist then nearly every Windows Server certification will cover the basics of Hyper-V, so most of the MCTS certs will do, or at least act as a foundation for Hyper-V.  That does not mean that VCPs are not extremely qualified.  Frankly, I believe that the VCP process was harder than the MCTS process, and suspect that most of the VCPs out there have a collection of other certifications including the odd MCSE and MCTS.

All of this to say that it is easier to learn Microsoft virtualization as a subset of other skills you already need in your environment than it is to invest in training on new (to them) technology for an IT Pro.  <shameless plug> The certification process can be as easy as spending a few hours with the e-learning course Collection 10215- Implementing and Managing Microsoft Server Virtualization (see Hyper-V Training–10215AE is now available in E-Learning! on The World According to Mitch) which will prepare you for the exam 70-659, and then scheduling (and sitting) the exam. </shameless plug> There is no requirement to sit the class before being allowed to take it.

4. Cost

So with all of these factors being equal, the decision for many will come down to cost… and this is one factor where Microsoft wins hands down.  According to price lists provided by Hewlett-Packard, VMware’s pricing for an 8-node cluster built on vSphere 5 Enterprise on servers with two CPUs (before we encounter the vMemory vTax) is USD$45,363.  Building the same environment on Microsoft technologies with System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 would cost $6,960 – less than one sixth the cost.  Expanding it out to the same configuration but four CPUs the VMware solution doubles in cost while the Microsoft solution remains the same.  In other words, as your environment grows arithmetically your costs on VMware grow exponentially.

Conclusion

As the technologies get closer in functionality it becomes more and more important to find a way to stay ahead, whether that be with innovation or with pricing.  Which is right for you?  That is for you to decide.  Which is right for me?  Check out the blog posts on the infrastructure at SWMI Consulting Group for your answer.

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3 thoughts on “Virtualization Infrastructure: Which platform is right for you?

  1. Pingback: What are the risks involved in Virtualization Compliance? | Office for Business

  2. Pingback: Lessons–Both Positive and Negative! « The World According to Mitch

  3. Pingback: Hyper-V Survival Guide: everything you want to know on virtualization! | Paradigm Shift

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