Hyper-V vs. VMware: Which costs more?

VMware and Microsoft tout their virtualisation technologies as more cost-effective than that of the competition. But industry observers say an ROI comparison isn't that simple..

As VMware re-worked the pricing of its virtualisation tools in a bid to attract smaller companies, industry observers and providers weigh in on the relative merits of different virtualisation options.

VMware's recent decision to launch a new product and price range for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) has drawn critical appraisal from some quarters. "VMware has been bundled to make it look attractive to SMEs but it's actually quite deceptive," said Roger Baskerville, VP for service provider VisionCore Inc. "Essentially what they're doing is giving enterprise-style pricing to the SME. The new bundles are shaped in a way to hide the true pricing."

To illustrate his point, Baskerville noted that the price for the basic package, for three two-socket server, £995, was deceptively low, because this bare-bones package does not include all the essentials a user would need at this level, such as VMotion management for migration of virtual machines (VMs), fault tolerance and backup. "Without these [features], you have no real management, and without management you have escalating costs," Baskerville said.

Hidden virtualisation costs
Though analysts (such as New York based Ideas International Inc.) have advised that virtualisation's return on investment can be calculated by assessing the cost per virtual machine, Baskerville was sceptical about this oversimplification.

The new bundles are shaped in a way to hide the true pricing.

Roger Baskerville,
VPVisionCore Inc.

"How can you calculate the return on investment when you are never really sure what the investment is actually going to be?" he said. "Many of the costs of virtualisation are hidden." Some of the costs are being obscured by the disingenuousness of VMware's pricing mechanism, he argued.

That aside, Baskerville, whose firm has a close relationship with both VMware and Microsoft, was quick to emphasize that VMware offers a much richer range of management tools. And management tools are the key to keeping costs in check as virtualisation takes off.

But the price of admission to a virtual world is a fraction of the running costs. According to Quocirca Ltd., an IT research firm, hardware is one-tenth the cost of any IT project. The biggest variable is human capital: operational costs tend to be about 10 times as large as capital expenditure, according to Clive Longbottom, the senior research director at Quocirca He argued that comparing Microsoft's Hyper V with VMware's is not a like comparison. "It's a bit like comparing smoke with mirrors."

The problem with cheap, or free products is that they are a legitimised corporate Trojan horse, said Longbottom. Once the gift has been accepted, it sets to work, quietly ushering money out of your organisation, while enabling strangers to gain access to your company – in the form of maintenance contractors and service providers, who have to make amends for whatever the free software was unable to deliver.

Virtualisation cost vs. features: No easy task
Yes, Hyper-V is cheaper than VMware, and it has less demanding system requirements. On the other hand, VMware boasts higher consolidation ratios than its upstart rival and can run on older models of central processing unit, and uses less memory than Hyper-V, said Adrian Polley, the CEO of service provider Plan-Net, which primarily sells to finance and legal companies.

VMware offers a much richer range of management tools, VP Baskerville notes.


"Microsoft will force users to buy new hardware platforms in all cases. That's not what they want," said Ketan Karia, the chief marketing officer at application developer Ingres. "We've just re-written the kernel of our software so that end users get 10 times better performance from their existing platforms," he said. At the moment, businesses don't want to buy new platforms. They want to use what they already have to better advantage. The cost of migrating to a new hardware platform needs to be reckoned, he said.

Comparing costs, under these circumstances, is impossible, as no two companies have the same set of circumstances, but weighing his experience, he argued that VMware would be a more cost-effective long-term fix. "By getting something [like Hyper-v] free, you can cut your teeth and build up expertise," he said, but this can lead to problems as IT projects start to become misaligned with the direction of the business. "Once you have learned how easy it is to create a VLAN, you can go virtualisation crazy. But without a vision, where are you going?"

With no hand-off process, processes can swiftly become unmanaged, and costs can escalate dramatically in ways you never envisaged. This makes the traditional painstaking calculations of units of memory, CPU, servers, and licenses irrelevant when costs are being projected.

One public-sector organisation ran up huge unplanned costs through unchecked growth of virtualisation, Polley testified. The organisation began by setting up development environments using virtualisation technology. Once it was successful with this phase, it was tempted to create a new internal infrastructure for another project that had to be up and running quickly by using virtualisation technology. But in the rush to get launched quickly, the IT department went live with its new system from a development environment. But without management tools available – VMware's VMotion, for example would have enabled it to migrate the virtual server live – meant the server had to suffer downtime. In the end, the public-sector outfit paid a high premium for having to hire a service provider with the skills and experience to tackle the problem.

With any IT tool, the challenge is that it doesn't just automate good processes, it multiplies faults. "Virtualisation can exaggerate problems," this user said.

Microsoft Hyper-V R2 catches up to VMware
If only they'd waited, argued Mike Young, Nebulas Solution Group's virtualisation specialist. He believes the imminent release of Windows Server 2008 R2 will see Microsoft introduce the enterprise features that VMware has had to itself for a long time – namely Live Migration. In earlier versions of Hyper-V, users were disconnected whilst a VM was moved, creating downtime. "The question today is still around what features an organisation requires when implementing virtualisation and how easy it is to manage," said Young.

Another problem with calculating cost is that vendors' supporting statistics are often theoretical. As with many of the numerical promises made by vendors in IT and telecoms, terms and conditions apply.

VMware claims that a single system can support 128 virtual machines on 256 GB of physical RAM on one host. Meanwhile, Microsoft can support 24 logical processors on a single server. Given that each processor (or core) can support eight VMs, that would total 192 virtual machines per system.

But, as ever, terms and conditions apply, and you would not be able to negotiate a discount on your original investment if this did not turn out to be the case. The number of virtual machines achievable depends on the applications that are run on these VMs, and their subsequent demands on system resources –the CPU, memory, storage and the input output interface.

Licensing further complicates any straight comparison between VMware ESXi, and Hyper-V.

Pay for what you need
A better way to compare the prices of VMware ESX with that of Microsoft Hyper-V prices of VMware's ESX and Microsoft Hyper-V would be to take a real-world workload and calculate the price if you were to use either system.

You can often do the job with the basics.

Aydin Kurt-Elli,

Although virtualisation is considered a mainstream technology, virtual machines still account for less than 20% of all data centre servers. Today's x86 virtualisation solutions are typically developed only for nonmission-critical workloads or for development and test environments.

There are several reasons for this. Despite the fact that proprietary virtualisation offerings come with robust management tools that ease deployment and administration, their use is constrained by poor performance, limited scalability and security and high cost, said Quocirca's Longbottom.

Although many vendors offer the hypervisor for free, the total cost of proprietary virtualisation solutions -- including management tools -- can run into the tens of thousands of pounds per host. The resulting high cost of virtualisation tends to restrict deployments of projects where costs can quickly be recouped, such as lightly used applications with high consolidation rates of 10 to 20 servers per host.

Hyper-V tends to be more expensive on assets, and memory, admitted Hyper-V enthusiast Aydin Kurt-Elli, the CEO of data centre service provider Lumison. If it allocates 4 GB of memory, for example, that memory is locked to that machine, even if it subsequently only uses half a gigabit at most. It is the fluidity of VMware that makes it cheaper to administrate. But fluidity also makes it impossible to compare like with like.

But Kurt-Elli argued that the long-term prognosis may be good for Microsoft. "In the last three years, virtualisation has been about rationalising. All the case studies are about how 1,200 servers were reduced to 300. But the new customers want scalable performance, for an infrastructure that grows, not a shrunken one," he said.

"Yes, Hyper-V doesn't have the sophisticated tools, but often you don't need all the fancy tools," said Kurt-Elli. "You can often do the job with the basics."

Nick Booth is a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.uk.

Read more on Server virtualisation platforms and management