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Should midmarket companies have one virtualization environment?

A lot of budget-strapped CIOs are going to be telling their systems and storage directors to take another look at consolidation this year. These days, consolidation means virtualization. Only recently, that mainly meant VMware ESX. That is still the weapon of choice for many reasons, but suddenly Microsoft actually has a competitive product.

After a pretty feeble offering with Virtual Server 2005, Microsoft went the hypervisor route and now offers that as a built-in feature (excuse me, a “role”) on Server 2008 Enterprise Edition. Make that your base install and you can then put any version of Windows and some versions of Linux in VMs on the same box. I’ve been playing with it on a quad-core AMD box with 8 gigs of memory and hey, it actually works! Two years ago, Hyper-V vs. ESX was a silly conversation about marketing. Now you can actually start to compare them and make decisions about how to use them.

In my case, I put three guests (a domain controller, a file server and one just idling while I figure out System Center Essentials) on Hyper-V without the box breaking a sweat. More to the point, I didn’t break a sweat, either. Even a non-MCSE guy like me could do it. No muss, no fuss. If you have admins who can install and configure Windows Server, they can work this.

There are a lot of holes in the Hyper-V story. As of 2009, it’s not going to get you close to a fully dynamic data center. You can’t move VMs around willy-nilly. There aren’t the same kind of admin tools for DR or test/dev labs or many other of the niceties that VMware and many third parties now have.

Pricewise, it might not be that big a bargain, either. Enterprise Edition can run you as much as $3,999, which isn’t very different than buying VMware VI3 and one copy of Server 2008 Standard. The devil will be in the details of your volume purchase agreements as far as that goes – depending on the support agreements, VMware could actually cost less. Eric Seibert on Server Virtualization Blog recently remarked that the many differences between the products makes comparing them, especially from a cost point of view, an apples-to-carrots comparison.

As for performance, I haven’t seen any face-offs yet between Hyper-V and Server 2008. But if you’re trying to quickly collapse a lot of low-effort servers, maybe you don’t care about the ultimate in benchmark scores.

So it comes back to what it often does when choosing between Windows and something else: familiarity, integration and ease of use. In midmarket companies, you can’t always afford overspecialized IT staff. Maybe you don’t have budget or headcount for VMware specialists. Maybe you’d rather use your existing ESX licenses for more hard-core uses like email and ERP. Maybe you want to use similar tools to manage your physical and virtual servers.

The point is, CIOs will want to take a close look at the tradeoff between having one virtual environment (whether that’s Microsoft or VMware) or tiering their virtual environments. And finally, they have a reason to do that.

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