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Windows Server 2008 Launch: A Look At Virtualization With Hyper-V

Column: Accountant Tech Talk

With little flair, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer kicked off the official launch
of Windows Server 2008 on February 28, 2008. I was personally involved with
several other trainers in presenting 24 consecutive hours of virtual launch
covering not only Windows Server 2008, but also Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server
2008 and the Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL) program. The launch
event continues with live events around the world touting the benefits of Microsoft’s
new server operating system. In addition, with even less flair, SP1 for Windows
Vista was officially released. The code base for the desktop operating system
(Windows Vista) and the server operating system (Windows Server 2008) are now
combined, so in effect the release of Windows Server 2008 contains all the updates
and patches from a year of Windows Vista. When SP2 releases, it will apply to
both Vista and Windows Server 2008.

With all of the new features and technology built into Windows Server 2008
and given limited time, which was chosen as the one technology to highlight
in these virtual sessions? I was not surprised at the answer to this question:
Virtualization with Hyper-V. Virtualization is clearly the new frontier for
Microsoft (who has been running far behind rival VMWare for some time) in a
technology that will definitely change the way we do things.

To those of you who haven’t heard of or perhaps need a refresher on
the technology, virtualization gives us the ability to operate multiple virtual
machines on a single hardware host. The benefits are as follows:

Lower number of physical servers. This is made possible by
consolidating multiple physical machines onto a single hardware host. Besides
the obvious positive result of taking up less space, this also allows previously
under-utilized hardware resources to be fully used, making the investment in
hardware more efficient. In addition, instead of maintaining five physical servers,
you only maintain one even though that one physical server hosts five virtual

Server application isolation. Some of you are familiar with
running multiple server applications on a single machine, like e-mail and file
storage. The challenge is if one of those applications misbehaves and requires
a reboot of the server, the interruption is to all the applications hosted on
that machine even if they didn’t misbehave. By isolating critical applications
on separate servers, the interruption associated with a reboot or repair of
a misbehaving application is significantly reduced. For example, my e-mail server
stops responding so I reboot the virtual server that hosts only my e-mail while
separate virtual servers continue to provide access to shared files and yet
another virtual server continues to provide access to tax and/or accounting

Rapid recovery from disaster. Virtual machines are software
images and can be easily backed up on a regular schedule so that if something
unforeseen happens that brings the server down, like the failure of the hardware
host or unintended results from the installation of a program update or a security
event (malware), a previous copy can be relatively quickly restarted on the
same hardware host or another (backup) hardware host if the original host is
the cause of the disaster.

    Snapshot: Benefits of Virtualization

    • Lower number of physical servers
    • Server application isolation
    • Rapid recovery from disaster
    • Great testing environment

Great testing environment. We would all like to have an environment
to test how an application or update might affect an otherwise functional server.
By utilizing the backup capabilities of virtualized servers, we can duplicate
a functional server environment and use that duplicate for testing to give us
the peace of mind that if the test goes well, we can use the test machine as
the production server and, if not, we can simply delete the test machine.

It’s important to put the excitement around the virtualization technology
into perspective. I like what Tom Bittman, a VP & Analyst with the Gartner
Group, said: “Virtualization without good management is more dangerous
than not using virtualization in the first place.” I believe what Mr.
Bittman was saying is that the technology gives us unlimited potential for multiple
virtual machines, but if we don’t properly manage that capability we can
create more problems than solutions.

From my perspective, the VMWare product is miles ahead of the Microsoft product.
That said, however, the integration of the hypervisor-based virtualization into
the Windows Server 2008 platform is a significant improvement to Microsoft’s
prior virtualization initiative, which provided virtualization as a pure software
application. With hypervisor, the virtualization layer now sits directly on
top of the hardware so it has greater access to hardware resources. This provides
for better management of hardware resources.

It’s important to note that although Windows Server 2008 has been officially
released, the virtualization piece was not included and won’t be for a
period of up to six months.

I wanted to give the new technology a spin myself, so I built a hardware host
(server) with an Intel S5000 server board, which supports virtualization and
a v-based processor. Two requirements of the hypervisor technology are a CPU
that supports hardware assisted virtualization (both Intel and AMD have such
CPUs) and support for Data Execution Protection (DEP), which provides hardware-level
protection against security threats.

This makes sense since an attacker that can breach the hardware that is a host
for many virtual servers could also affect those virtual servers. I had to enable
in the BIOS the hardware support for virtualization; it wasn’t enabled
by default. Once done, I installed the Windows Server x64 (64-bit) version with
Hyper-V (currently in beta). I used the new management interface to create a
virtual machine and then restored an image of our production SharePoint 2003
server to that virtual machine. The process went very smoothly — so smoothly
that we decommissioned the aging hardware that was hosting our SharePoint 2003
site. Since then, we have carefully backed up our SharePoint server at critical
steps along the way, but have used the virtual server to do an in-place upgrade
from SharePoint 2003 to SharePoint 2007. The process has been completely transparent
to the firm’s staff; they simply know they are using the new version of
SharePoint, but not that it’s running as a virtual machine. Now I’m
working on an Office Communications Server running on Windows Server 2003 64-bit
operating system.

I have been very impressed with the efficient hardware utilization of Hyper-V,
and I think VMWare has a real competitor now.