Does Microsoft's early release of Hyper-V help combat VMware?

Microsoft fired an unexpected shot that was heard around the world when it announced the early public beta release of its widely anticipated virtualisation hypervisor, Hyper-V.

Originally expected sometime in Q1 of 2008, Hyper-V is Microsoft's hypervisor virtualisation technology that works with the latest release candidate of Windows Server 2008 Enterprise (x64 edition). And according to Microsoft, the company is still on track to launch Hyper-V within 180 days of the RTM of Windows Server 2008.

In its official announcement, Microsoft called the news delivery a "holiday surprise" for its customers and partners. "Delivering the high-quality Hyper-V beta earlier than expected allows our customers and partners to begin evaluating this feature of Windows Server 2008 and provide us with valuable feedback as we march toward final release," said Bill Laing, general manager of the Windows Server Division at Microsoft.

Microsoft said they have expanded the features and capabilities in Hyper-V since its September 2007 Community Technology Preview. Some of the new features added include: 'Quick Migration' and high availability to help provide for planned and unplanned downtime, volume shadow services support, integration with Windows Server Manager and support for running Hyper-V with Server Core in the parent partition.

Virtual machines can now be imported and exported, and they have grown up to offer new capabilities themselves. They now support up to four virtual SCSI controllers, multiple network adapters and up to 64GB of memory. In addition, they've changed the emulated video card from an S3 Trio to a more generic VESA compatible device to help resolve video issues with some operating systems like Linux.

Microsoft said Hyper-V is designed to provide a broad range of customers with familiar and cost-effective virtualisation infrastructure software that can help reduce operating costs, increase hardware utilisation, optimise infrastructure and improve server availability.

But the big question that remains is, with virtualisation being built into the Microsoft Windows operating system, will it change the way consumers use virtualisation? Analysts say that only about five percent of today's x86 servers are virtualised. That leaves a lot of room on the table. But the market is quickly getting seeded with virtualisation platforms from Citrix, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle and Sun, all trying to take away market share from VMware while trying to capture the remaining 95 percent of x86 servers.

VMware believes that Microsoft is late to the virtualisation party and isn't offering anything new to combat what VMware already has in place. VMware's senior director of product marketing, Bogomil Balkansky said, "Microsoft is now releasing a beta version of a first generation product when customers need production proven, reliable, mature virtualisation solutions."

He added, "Hyper-V provides only server partitioning while VMware Infrastructure is a third generation platform with a complete array of capabilities to simplify IT management and improve infrastructure availability. Tens of thousands of VMware customers have leveraged VMware infrastructure to reduce capital and operating costs to implement high availability solutions, deliver on the promise of the virtualised desktop, and better automate and manage their software applications."

Balkansky also pointed out in the interview that the beta version of Hyper-V is somewhat comparable to VMware's Infrastructure 3 Foundation Acceleration Kit. However, he said one significant differentiator of the VI3 Foundation Acceleration Kit over a Microsoft Hyper-V offering is ESX Server 3i. ESX Server 3i is built on a next-generation thin architecture that delivers strengthened security, improved reliability and simplified management.

Microsoft does have one thing on its side. Almost 2 million customers from around the world have already downloaded Windows Server 2008 evaluation code. Only time will tell if Microsoft's current Hyper-V feature set is enough to propel them into becoming the dominant virtualisation vendor. Or as VMware claims, is the feature set too immature and too unproven compared to what VI3 already offers today?

The beta is available for download, here.