Review: Three virtualisation frameworks

Want to know what your IT team is in for when they start to deploy virtualisation? Ian Yates reviews offerings from VMware, Microsoft and XenSource and finds just how frustrating virtualisation can become.

Unless you’ve been on vacation somewhere in the Antarctic you must surely have been bombarded with urgings from all and sundry to go virtual. And if you just got back from vacation in the Antarctic your mailbox and inbox will be overflowing with flyers urging you to go virtual. There must be something in this virtual thing after all.

So we decided it was time to find out what’s on offer.

The biggest player in the virtual space is VMWare, now owned by EMC. The next biggest noise seems to be coming from Citrix which recently purchased Xensource. And the new noise in virtual is coming from Microsoft which has just released Windows Server 2008 which has virtual built-in. Well … it’s built-in if you get the 64-bit version. Alright, be pedantic, there’s a release candidate available and the final version will ship in Q3.

Anyways, there’s some virtuality on offer out there, so we downloaded the free trials from VMWare, Citrix and Microsoft, dusted off an old whitebox PC and proceeded to install all things virtual.

We didn’t get very far. It seems this virtual stuff, at least in the latest versions, expects more than a little help from the CPU. Specifically, it wants “virtual” support built right into the chip. So, we dragged a brand new whitebox server off the shelf to use as the test bench.

This box wasn’t quite state of the art, but it did have an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU, 4GB of memory and a pair of 250GB drives in a mirrored pair using the Intel RAID controller embedded on the Gigabyte motherboard. Pretty much middle-of-the-road rather than a total Xeon state-of-the-art beastie, but hey, we’re finding out how this virtual thing works, not preparing a new server for a major bank.

Time to slip the VMWare ESX CD into the tray and watch the pretty lights flashing.

Well, they didn’t flash for very long. ESX booted up fine, but then asked where it should load its virtual code. On the hard drive, moron. Can’t see the hard drive. Que? Alright, so it doesn’t like the Intel RAID controller, and there’s no Linux driver for it, so start again. This time we just left the hard drives as plain SATA drives, but still the Linux underneath ESX wasn’t interested.

We tried again with an old IDE drive plugged directly into an IDE cable. Success! Well sort of – we now got far enough to get a message from ESX telling us this was never going to work unless we had SCSI drives – and of course a driver for our SCSI controller. Well, the Intel RAID thing behaves like a SCSI controller but without a driver, game over.

Xensource’s turn

So we turned to the Xensource virtual offering instead. Boot the CD, watch the pretty lights, clunk thunk stop. Won’t recognise the hard drives as they are configured. Mutter mutter mumble. Try SATA, IDE, RAID getting nowhere. We’re not going out and buying a recognised SCSI controller or a whole file server from HP or DELL just to take a peek at the virtual world. Time to give Windows Server 2008 a chance to show its virtual wares.

Windows Server 2008

Pop the Win2K8 CD in the tray and zing! If you’ve never installed Win2K8 it’s a lot like the install for Windows Vista but about ten zillion times faster. Well, okay, quite a bit faster. The thing asks hardly any questions and spends most of the 15 minutes expanding files, then reboots and you’re done. This can’t be right. Win2K3 server took hours to install. How could it be so fast? The answer lies in the roles the server is asked to perform. A ‘role’ is some function or other you need done and Win2K8 doesn’t load any roles at install time. And that includes not even installing things like printer and file sharing.

What you get is an absolutely bare bones basic server, which you then add ‘roles’ to in order to get something done. Well that’s actually the way it should be, and it only took, what, twenty years to get there? At least we are now there. Okay, so for what we’re trying to do we only need one more role and that’s the Hyper-V or virtual manager thingy. But it isn’t on the list. Hmm. Time to check the website, maybe you have to download it?

Nope. You have to install 64-bit Win2K8 server in order to get Hyper-V on the menu. Dang. This is a 32-bit CPU not a Xeon. Would it matter? Slide in the 64-bit Windows Server 2008 CD and watch the pretty lights. Format the hard disk from the ‘advanced’ menu. Takes seconds not even minutes. Install the 64-bit version – expanding, expanding, expanding, done! Another 15 minute install completed, click on roles and voila! Hyper-V is now on the menu!

Once the Hyper-V thingy was loaded it was literally a no-brainer to load another three copies of 32-bit Windows Server 2008, choose different roles for each of them and see how it works. And work is exactly what it did, with no dramas at all. We could “pull the plug” on a virtual server, or shut it down gracefully. We could put it to sleep, then wake it up again without a problem. We started to understand how this could actually be useful in real life. We were momentarily tempted to load up a Win2K3 server but then we remembered how long that takes and decided to stick with the latest and greatest.

Now, latest and greatest includes Windows Vista, so that was an obvious candidate for virtualisation. It loaded fast enough, although a bit slower than the server since it installs everything including the kitchen sink. And then we fired it up in virtual land. Ooops. Maybe Vista wasn’t what they had in mind when those urgings to go virtual arrived. What a doggie! The average turtle trudging through treacle would easily arrive before virtual Vista got anything done. It took another 40 minutes just to shut the thing down and get back to the virtual server farm in a box.

The upshot of all this testing was that virtual servers do work and they’re easy to install under Microsoft’s Hyper-V. We’ll let you know if they’re just as easy under VMWare and Citrix when we get some hardware their respective Linux underpinnings are prepared to communicate with, but until then if you want to try it out for yourself, Windows Server 2008 seems more likely to play with the spare server you can get your hands on. Then again, maybe at your place you keep a slab of production-ready brand-name Xeon boxes in the corner.

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