Features, updates that make Microsoft Hyper-V 3 worth a second look

Significant enhancements to Microsoft Hyper-V 3 in storage, networking and clustering areas make it an effective and cost-efficient option for large enterprises and SMEs.

The advanced networking, storage and clustering capabilities in the upcoming Hyper-V 3 show that Microsoft is determined to claw some market share off VMware.

Past development efforts by Microsoft for its Hyper-V hypervisor have been focused on making the platform competitive in terms of performance and manageability. However, Hyper-V’s adoption still lags behind VMware vSphere platform.

But with Hyper-V 3, slated for release with Windows 8 and Windows Server 8, the vendor brings improvements in the key areas that matter to admins -- higher scalability, better storage and networking features and high clustering features -- putting Microsoft Hyper-V on par with VMware vSphere.

One of the first things that strike virtualisation admins when reviewing the beta previews of Hyper-V 3 is its scalability; it is built to support more than 32 nodes and 4,000 virtual machines (VMs), facilitating highly intensive virtual workloads. In addition, new high availability and disaster recovery features support running critical workloads on the platform.

Another good piece of news for virtualisation admins is that Microsoft has built an extensible API into certain parts of Hyper-V to grow its partner ecosystem. At the same time, it allows for working with third-party vendors to improve performance and functionality.

Here is how some of Hyper-V 3’s noticeable enhancements can help virtualisation professionals.

Improved Hyper-V virtual switch brings tighter security
Microsoft will introduce enhancements to the existing Hyper-V virtual switch dubbed the Virtual Extensible Switch (VES). It will include several key network stack extensions that will be published through a fully extensible API.

VES will include a vast array of newly developed security “extensions” that will enable third-party ISVs to develop their own tool sets to perform tasks at the hypervisor layer, including activities such as packet layer inspection and security management.

Microsoft ecosystem partners could also leverage VES to prevent DDoS attacks, perform antivirus scanning, and offer firewall capabilities -- all at the virtual switch level without the need for additional hardware.

VES will also include extensions with a richer query and command capability that can be used with common tools such as Powershell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI). This can improve management with Microsoft Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) tools and also potentially, thanks to the published API, integrate with physical network infrastructure management tools.

This new model for an extensible switch strategy could help Microsoft because of the potential for additional functionality arising out of collaboration with security vendors and products from vendors like Cisco, Juniper and Nokia. And for virtualisation admins, adding such technology on their hypervisor platform may not involve a huge capital investment.

Cheaper storage options in Microsoft Hyper-V 3
Microsoft will change the virtual hard disk (VHD) format in Hyper-V 3 to align with the changes in Windows Server 8. The new format, called VHDX, will include larger disk support of up to 16 TB , but this functionality will be for Windows 8 guests only. It will also include a metadata tag option to identify key attributes on that VHDX file such as an OS version or the last time a backup was performed, which will be useful to IT pros managing a large infrastructure with many virtual machines (VMs).

The shift in how Microsoft configures disks in Hyper-V indicates that the vendor understands how a versatile disk format is crucial for supporting highly intensive workloads and for ensuring continuity and high availability.

For organisations with limited budgets, Hyper-V 3 will support hosting VHDX files on file server storage, specifically Server Message Block (SMB) 2.2 shared volumes on direct-attached storage. This capability will allow SMEs to perform live migration of VMs stored on that SMB share.

This is welcome news for organisations that cannot afford a SAN, as the capability will provide a way to separate VMs from the same hardware as the Hyper-V host and avoid outages in the event of a localised server hardware failure. Using SMB may also be useful for larger businesses that can development environments to reap the benefits of a cheaper storage medium.

With Hyper-V 3, Microsoft has also answered the problem of costly storage bottlenecks by offloading storage operations to the backend storage array. Dubbed Offloaded Data Transfer (ODX), this feature will provide additional I/O and CPU cycles to run more virtualised workloads and that will be offered by specific storage vendors. However, with a large number of vendors supporting Windows, ODX is likely to figure prominently on the Microsoft hardware compatibility list.

These storage enhancements mean that the platform has the potential to host much more intensive workloads and in turn increase IT’s consolidation ratios -- which was something that deterred admins from adopting previous versions of Hyper-V.

Clustering and HA take flight
Virtualisation admins and Hyper-V naysayers have used the lack of strong enterprise high availability and clustering capability in Hyper-V 2 to justify using alternative platforms. But in version 3, Microsoft has introduced new technologies that make the platform more robust and more capable of supporting mission-critical workloads.

For example, the vendor has maximised the clustering capability of Hyper-V 3; it now stretches to a total of 63 hosts and 4,000 VMs in a single cluster. Most admins may not require such high clustering capability, but should they need it, it is available.

Microsoft Hyper-V 3 clustering technologies will go to a greater level of failover with coverage at the host, guest and at the application-service level -- all manageable through centralised consoles. The greater level of VM failover brings Hyper-V 3 on par with its competitors.

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But one advantage that distinguishes Hyper-V 3 is application-level cluster awareness, which will eliminate having to purchase third-party clustering products such as Symantec Veritas Cluster Server (VCS). And that saves money. Of course, Hyper-V app-level clustering will be limited to Windows-only applications, but, still, this level of clustering using third-party tools is excessively expensive for most organisations.

VM host and individual VM failover placement logic is also improved in version 3 with updated Hyper-V placement priorities. In the event of a host failure, Hyper-V hosts will perform reviews of key metrics such as overall host utilisation, while being mindful of the Non-Uniform Memory Access topology to ensure performance won’t degrade based on the VM memory size.

Hyper-V 3 further includes improved health monitoring features that give better insight into the application and services layer. For example, a host will know that it is running Microsoft SQL and that it must bring it in line before a SharePoint server in order to resume service correctly.

Additional Hyper-V placement capability is now included in Server 8 unlike previously where it was a feature of the optional VMM. This is great for SMBs that cannot justify purchasing management tools or if the host-count in a cluster doesn’t warrant VMM.

High availability, disaster recovery in focus
Another new feature in Hyper-V 3 that can bolster Microsoft’s reputation in the virtualisation marketplace is the introduction of Hyper-V Replica for disaster recovery.

Hyper-V Replica replicates VMs at the Hyper-V host level between hosts that are either local or offsite in another data centre. Using Hyper-V Replica, admins will be able to define snapshot and replication interval granularity to control the level of change in replications. Replica is integrated with Microsoft VSS and can be used between heterogeneous storage platforms. It even supports replication to file shares on direct-attached storage for a really cost-effective disaster recovery that does not require a SAN or SAN replication.

Microsoft has really upped its game with the enhancements in Hyper-V 3, garnering more acceptances in IT shops and emerging as a serious competitor to VMware vSphere.

For a Microsoft-only infrastructure, Hyper-V 3 may well be a great option for the future.

Daniel Eason is an infrastructure architect at a multinational company and is based in the UK.

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