Companies of all sizes are looking to virtualisation as a seemingly game-changing scenario. Server consolidation, energy efficiency, increased capacity, and simpler management and deployment are all tangible benefits to be gained from a move to virtual servers and virtually hosted services.

Microsoft has seen the light and is here to help with Hyper-V (previously known by its code name, Viridian, or by the previous brand name, Windows Server Virtualisation), which was released in beta earlier this month, ahead of the planned February 2008 date.

According to the company, Hyper-V "is a next-generation hypervisor-based virtualisation platform integrated with the operating system that allows you to dynamically add physical and virtual resources."

You might know about virtualisation in general, but you might not be familiar with what the buzz is about. Here's a look at how Hyper-V works, its major benefits and when you can expect to deploy this feature in production environments.

How it works

To understand Hyper-V, consider its three main components: the hypervisor, the virtualisation stack and the new virtualised I/O model. The Windows hypervisor basically acts to create the different "partitions" that each virtualised instance of code will run within. The virtualisation stack and the I/O components provide interactivity with Windows itself and with the various partitions that are created.

All three of these components work in tandem. Using servers with processors equipped with Intel VT- or AMD-V-enabled technology, Hyper-V interacts with the hypervisor, which is a very small layer of software that is present directly on the processor. This software hooks into threads on the processor that the host operating system can use to efficiently manage multiple virtual machines, and multiple virtual operating systems, running on a single physical processor.

Since there are no third-party software products or drivers to install, you get nearly guaranteed compatibility. Along with efficient process management, you can hot-add resources to the machine hosting your virtualised services. From processors to memory to network cards to additional storage media, you can add these devices to the machine without needing to bring down any services and interrupt user sessions. You can also host 64-bit guest sessions, which is a big boon to organisations moving toward adoption of 64-bit software. You can virtualise your migration, save money on deployment costs and then assess how many physical machines you'll need when you finish your migration.

High availability

Part of the idea behind virtualisation is not only to eliminate machine duplication and save on costs, but to also ensure that services are available more than they otherwise would be on unvirtualised servers. In that context, Hyper-V includes support for clustering across multiple guests.

Additionally, you can cluster multiple physical machines running the Hyper-V component, so that virtualised instances can fail-over to another host should something occur with the primary host. Finally, you can migrate virtualised guests from one physical host to another with no downtime, easing servicing, planning and reorganisation while significantly limiting detrimental effects on production services.

You can also take advantage of the new disk quorum features in Windows Server 2008, which allow you to have clusters in multiple locations - say, on both coasts of the US, or on different continents across the world. You can do so without necessarily having to have a single shared disk between them, something that's required for clustering using Windows Server 2003.

Additionally, you can implement Hyper-V on a Server Core installation of Windows Server 2008 and take advantage of the stability and reduced overhead of that style of deployment as well. These are, of course, tangential benefits with high-availability objectives.

Futurescaping

So when can you get your hands on all of the features and benefits of Hyper-V? The good news is you can get started exploring the product today: There is a beta release available that you can download at Microsoft.com. Microsoft plans to sign off on the final build of Hyper-V within 180 days of the release to manufacturing of Windows Server 2008, and it will offer multiple SKUs of Windows Server 2008, with and without Hyper-V included in the box. Windows Server 2008 is expected in February.

If you're concerned about the time and money you've invested in your virtualisation infrastructure already, you'll be pleased to know that users of Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 can move relatively seamlessly over to Hyper-V when it's ready, without losing the effort put in to Virtual Server thus far. However, you may need some new hardware in some instances, since Hyper-V will require 64-bit hardware and will not be released in an x86 (32-bit) edition.

Hyper-V is the natural next step in Microsoft's virtualisation story. With properly equipped hardware, you stand ready to enjoy a number of benefits that weren't possible before.