Microsoft releases System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008

System Center Virtual Machine ManagerAround about now, Microsoft is due to announce that they have released System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2008 to manufacturing. For those watching Microsoft’s virtualisation strategy unfold, this is an extremely important release – many of the critics of Hyper-V have been concerned about the management tools but SCVMM integrates with other System Center tools to provide a fully-featured management solution for both Hyper-V and VMware ESX – so organisations can manage their physical and virtual workloads as one, whether they are running a Microsoft or a VMware virtualisation platform.

I’ll write separately about the various System Center management products and how they complete the Microsoft Virtualization story but this post looks at some of the features in SCVMM 2008.

Originally released in 2007, SCVMM is a recent addition to the System Center family of management products and provides centralised management for virtual machines whilst integrating fully with other System Center products to allow administrators to use the same interface and common foundation that they use for managing a physical infrastructure in the virtual world.

Built on Windows PowerShell, making the product fully scriptable, SCVMM uses the concept of jobs which are executed against virtual machine hosts and guests for centralised management.

With the 2008 product release, Microsoft has added cross-platform management functionality(Hyper-V, Virtual Server and VMware ESX – note that the VMware management does require Virtual Center in order to provide the necessary APIs and does not include non-task-oriented functions, such as cluster creation), integration with Windows Server 2008 failover clusters (including intelligent placement), delegated administration and performance and resource optimisation (PRO) to provide guidance for administrators for automatic or manual actions when alerts are raised, integrating with the management frameworks provided by leading server hardware providers.

Microsoft’s algorithm for intelligent placement of virtual machine workloads uses the CPU, memory, network and disk requirements for virtual machines to project the required resources and then balance this with the defined resource thresholds for each host, before providing a rating for each host, according to its suitability for servicing a given virtual machine workload. It also takes into account the prospect of cluster node failure, whereas competitive solutions will allow resource overcommitment to artificially increase the consolidation ratio (but may be creating a problem if a node does fail). Through integration with SCOM, SCVMM can be used to discover potential virtualisation candidates and the product also includes the ability to perform physical to virtual (P2V) and unidirectional virtual to virtual (V2V) conversions.

Delegated administration should be a key consideration for infrastructure deployments and SCVMM enables this with a role-based model, including self-service. Templates may be used for rapid provisioning of new virtual machines and the web portal provides a quota system for users to create and destroy VMs, based on administrator-defined rules.

As for how to buy SCVMM – it will be available from November 2008 as a standalone product, or as part of the Server Management Suite Enterprise (SMSE) which allows organisations to use several System Center products to build a complete management solution for the entire infrastructure, both physical and virtual.

Management is clearly a strong element of Microsoft’s virtualisation story and SCVMM addresses many of the issues that the basic tools provided with Hyper-V cannot. With the added advantage of the “Windows that you know” – i.e. familiarity for administrators – and, according to Microsoft, a greatly reduced total cost of ownership, SCVMM not just a perfect companion to Hyper-V but it also provides management tools for legacy virtual infrastructure and finally brings enterprise virtualisation features within the reach of most organisations.

Hyper-V Server has RTMed – SCVMM due by the end of the month

I’ve just heard that Microsoft Hyper-V Server – the free version of Hyper-V with no reliance on Windows has shipped. Hyper-V Server will be available for download later today from the Microsoft website.

For more information about Hyper-V Server, check out the blog post I wrote a few days ago on host virtualisation using Microsoft Virtualization technologies.

System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 has not been released yet but Microsoft do say that it will be ready by the end of October (they had previously indicated that it would ship within 30 days of the Microsoft Virtualization launch last month).

Christmas has come early: App-V, Hyper-V Server, SCVMM and live migration in Hyper-V all on their way!

Get Virtual Now

I’d heard that something big was happening in Redmond today (well, maybe not in Redmond, but in Bellevue anyway…). I knew about the getVIRTUALnow events and I watched the opening session on the web but there had to be something else. Well, there is – Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 (App-V, formerly SoftGrid), which RTMed last week, will be part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimisation Pack (MDOP) R2, due for general availability within the coming weeks. System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 will be released within 30 days, as will Hyper-V Server (which will be a free downloadnot $28 as previously announced). And, as Scott Lowe reported earlier, live migration will be supported by Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2.

Read more in the associated Microsoft press release.

Microsoft virtualisation news

Some time back, there was talk of System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 (then called SCVMM vNext) shipping within 90 days of Hyper-V. This link was later denied, or at least downplayed (depending upon who you spoke to at Microsoft) but it seems that SCVMM 2008 is expected to ship in September… that’s ooh… about 90 days after Hyper-V. Of course, speculating on product release dates is always a risky business, but Rakesh Malhotra should know (he runs the SCVMM program management team).

On a related note, he also explains why SCVMM requires virtual center in order to integrate with VMware ESX (a question I asked a few days back after the release of the VMware Infrastructure Toolkit for Windows v1.0 (PowerShell cmdlets for VI).

Last, but not least, a Microsoft Virtualization User Group has been formed and have an inaugural meeting planned at Microsoft’s London (Victoria) offices on 24 September.

Microsoft’s Offline Virtual Machine Servicing Tool has been released

One of the problems associated with virtualisation is “virtual sprawl” – the proliferation of virtual machines (which can totally negate the idea of “server consolidation” if not carefully controlled. Management becomes critical – and a key part of that management is patching virtual machines to keep the operating system and applications up to date.

But what about the virtual machines that exist as offline images (templates, test and development machines, etc.)?

I’ve written previously about the beta of Microsoft’s offline servicing tool for virtual machine images and last week it was completed and released to the web.

The Offline Virtual Machine Servicing Tool works with System Center Virtual Machine Manager and, according to Microsoft, it “combines the Windows Workflow programming model with the Windows PowerShell interface to bring groups of virtual machines online just long enough for them to receive updates from either System Center Configuration Manager 2007 or Windows Server Update Services. As soon as the virtual machines are up-to-date, the tool returns them to the offline state in the Virtual Machine Manager library”.

There’s an executive overview on the Microsoft TechNet site and the tool can be downloaded from the Microsoft website.

Microsoft Offline Virtual Machine Servicing Tool

In my recent article about the realities of managing a virtualised infrastructure, I mentioned the need to patch offline virtual machine images. Whilst many offline images will be templates, they may still require operating system, security or application updates to ensure that they are not vulnerable when started (or when a cloned VM is created from a template).

Now Microsoft has a beta for a tool that will allow this – imaginatively named the Offline Virtual Machine Servicing Tool. Built on the Windows Workflow Foundation and PowerShell, it works with System Center Virtual Machine Manager and either System Center Configuration Manager or Windows Server Update Services to automate the process of applying operating system updates through the definition of servicing jobs. Each job will:

  1. “Wake” the VM (deploy and start it).
  2. Trigger the appropriate update cycle.
  3. Shut down the VM and return it to the library.

Although I haven’t tried this yet, it does strike me that there is one potential pitfall to be aware of – sysprepped images for VM deployment templates will start into the Windows mini-setup wizard. I guess the workaround in such a scenario is to use tools from the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) to inject updates into the associated .WIM file and deploy VMs from image, rather than by cloning sysprepped VMs.

Further details of the Offline Virtual Machine Servicing Tool beta may be found on the Microsoft Connect site.

Heterogeneous datacentre management from Microsoft System Center

Back in 2005, I quoted a Microsoft executive on his view on Microsoft’s support for heterogeneous environments through its management products:

“[it’s] not part of our DNA and I don’t think this is something that we should be doing.”

Well, maybe things are changing in post-Gates Microsoft. I knew that System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 (named at last week’s Microsoft Management Summit) included support for managing VMware ESX Server and a future version should also be able to manage XenSource hosts, but what I had missed in the MMS press release was System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) 2007 Cross Platform Extensions. These allow SCOM to manage HP-UX, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Sun Solaris and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server through management packs with Novell, Quest and Xandros adding support for common applications like Apache, MySQL and (a real surprise) Oracle. Then, for those with existing investments in major enterprise management suites, there are SCOM connectors to allow interoperability between System Center and third-party products like HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli.

I really think this is a brave step for Microsoft – but also the right thing to do. There are very few Microsoft-only datacentres and, whilst I am no enterprise management expert, it seems to me that corporates don’t want one solution for each platform and the big enterprise management suites are costly to implement. With System Center, people know what they are getting – a reasonably priced suite of products, with a familiar interface and a good level of functionality – maybe not everything that’s in Tivoli, UniCenter or OpenView, but enough to do the job. If the same solution that manages the WIntel systems can also manage the enterprise apps on Solaris (or another common Unix platform), then everyone’s a winner.

Hyper-V is the new name for Windows Server Virtualization

Last week I was in Redmond, at a Windows Server 2008 technical conference. Not a word was said about Windows Server 2008 product packaging (except that I think one speaker may have said that the details for the various SKUs were still being worked on). Well, it’s amazing how things can change in a few days, as one of the big announcements at this week’s TechEd IT Forum 2007 in Barcelona is the Windows Server 2008 product pricing, packaging and licensing. I don’t normally cover “news” here – there are others who do a much better job of that than I would – but I am interested in the new Hyper-V announcement.

Hyper-V is the new name for the product codenamed Viridian, also known as Windows Server Virtualization, and expected to ship within 180 days of Windows Server 2008. Interestingly, as well as the SKUs that were expected for web, standard, enterprise, datacenter and Itanium editions of Windows Server 2008, there will be versions of Windows Server 2008 standard, enterprise and datacenter editions without the Hyper-V technology (Hyper-V will only be available for x64 versions of Windows Server 2008) as well as a separate SKU for Hyper-V priced at just $28.

$28 sounds remarkably low – why not just make it free (and greatly simplify the product model)? In any case, this places Hyper-V in a great position to compete on price with Citrix Xen Server or VMware ESX Server 3i (it should be noted that I have yet to see pricing announced for VMware Server 3i) – I’ve already written that I think Hyper-V has the potential to compete on technical merit (something that its predecessor, Virtual Server 2005 R2, couldn’t).

At the same time, Microsoft announced a Windows Server Virtualisation validation programme – designed to validate Windows Server with virtualisation software and enable Microsoft to offer co-operative technical support to customers running Windows Server on validated, non-Windows server virtualisation software platforms (such as Xen) as well as virtualisation solution accelerators and general availability of System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2007.

Whilst VNU are reporting that VMware are “unfazed” by the Microsoft Hyper-V announcement, I have absolutely no doubt that Microsoft is serious about making a name for itself in the x86/x64 server virtualisation market.

Creating and managing a virtual environment on the Microsoft platform

Several months back, I blogged about a Microsoft event with a difference – one which, by and large, dropped the PowerPoint deck and scripted demos in favour of a more hands-on approach. That was the Windows Vista after hours event (which I know has been popular and re-run several times) but then, a couple of weeks back, I attended another one at Microsoft’s new offices in London, this time about creating and managing a virtual environment on the Microsoft platform.

Now, before I go any further I should point out that, as I write this in late 2007, I would not normally recommend Microsoft Virtual Server for an enterprise virtualisation deployment and tend to favour VMware Virtual Infrastructure (although the XenSource products are starting to look good too). My reasons for this are all about scalability – Virtual Server is limited in a number of ways, most notably that it doesn’t support multiple-processor virtual machines – it is perfectly suitable for a workgroup/departmental deployment though. Having said that, things are changing – next year we will see Windows Server Virtualisation, the management situation is improving with System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM).

…expect Microsoft to make a serious dent in VMware’s x86 virtualisation market dominance over the next couple of years

Throughout the day, Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill and Steve Lamb demonstrated a number of technologies for virtualisation on a Microsoft platform and the first scenario involved setting up a Virtual Server cluster, building the second node from a Windows Deployment Services (WDS) image (more on WDS later…) and using the Microsoft iSCSI target for shared storage (currently only available as part of Windows Storage Server although there is a free alternative called Nimbus MySAN iSCSI Server) together with the Microsoft iSCSI initiator – included within Windows Vista and Server 2008 (and available for download on Windows 2000/XP/Server 2003).

When clustering Virtual Server, it’s important to understand that Microsoft’s step by step guide for Virtual Server 2005 R2 host clustering includes an appendix containing a script (havm.vbs) to add as a cluster resource in order to allow servers to behave well in a virtual cluster. Taking the script offline effectively saves the virtual machine (VM), allowing the cluster group to be moved to a new node and then bringing the script back online will restore the state of the VM.

After demonstrating building Windows Server 2008 Server Core (using WDS) and full Windows Server 2008 (from an .ISO image), James and Steve demonstrated VMM, the System Center component for server consolidation through virtual migration and virtual machine provisioning and configuration. Whilst the current version of VMM only supports Virtual Server 2005 and Windows Server Virtualisation, a future version will also support the management of XenSource and VMware virtual machines, providing a single point of management for all virtual machines, regardless of the platform.

At this point, it’s probably worth looking at the components of a VMM enterprise deployment:

  • The VMM engine server is typically deployed on a dedicated server, and managed from the VMM system console.
  • Each virtual server host has a VMM agent installed for communication with the VMM engine.
  • Library servers can be used to store templates, .ISO images, etc. for building the virtual infarstructure, with optional content replication using distributed file system replication (DFS-R).
  • SQL Server is used for storage of configuration and discover information.
  • VMM uses a job metaphor for management, supporting administration from graphical (administration), web (delegated provisioning), or command line interfaces (the command line interface is through the use of VMM extensions for Windows PowerShell, for which a cmdlet reference is available for download and the GUI interface allows identification of the equivalent PowerShell command).

Furthermore, Windows Remote Management (WinRM/WS-Management) can be used to tunnel virtual machine management through HTTPS, allowing a virtual host to be remotely added to VMM.

VMM is currently available as part of an enterprise server management license; however it will soon be available in workstation edition, priced per physical machine.

The next scenario was based around workload management, migrating virtual machines between hosts (in a controlled manner). One thing that VMM cannot do is dynamically redistribute the workload between virtual server hosts – in fact Microsoft were keen to point out that they do not consider virtualisation technology to be mature enough to make the necessary technical decisions for automatic resource allocation. This is one area where my opinion differs – the Microsoft technology may not yet be mature enough (and many organisations’ IT operations processes may not be mature enough) but ruling out dynamic workload management altogether runs against the idea of creating a dynamic data centre.

It’s worth noting that there are two main methodologies for virtual machine migration:

  1. Quick migration requires shared storage (e.g. in a cluster scenario) with the saving of the VM state, transfer of control to another cluster node, and restoration of the VM on the new node. This necessarily involves some downtime but is fault tolerant with the main considerations being the amount of RAM in the VM and the speed at which this can be written to or read from the disk.
  2. Live migration is more complex (and will not be implemented in the forthcoming release of Windows Server Virtualization), involving copying the contents of the virtual machine’s RAM between two hosts whilst it is running. Downtime should be sub-second; however there is a requirement to schedule such a migration and it does involve copying the contents of the virtual machine’s memory across the network.

Some time ago, I wrote about using the Virtual Server Migration Toolkit (VSMT) to perform a physical to virtual (P2V) conversion. At that time, the deployment technology in use was Automated Deployment Services (ADS) but ADS has now been replaced with Windows Deployment Services (WDS), part of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK). WDS supports imaged deployment using Windows imaging format (.WIM) files for installation and boot images or legacy images (not really images at all, but RIS-style file shares including support for pending devices (prestaged computer accounts based on the machine’s GUID). P2V capabilities are now included within VMM, with a wizard for gathering information about the physical host server, then converting it to a virtual format, including analysis of the most suitable host using a star system for host ratings based on CPU, memory, disk and network availability. At the time of writing, VMM supports a P2V conversion as well as virtual to virtual (V2V) conversion from a running VM (strangely, Microsoft still refer to this as P2V) and V2V file format conversion and optimisation (from competing virtualisation products) but not virtual to physical (V2P) conversion (this may be possible using a Windows Vista System Restore but there would be issues around hardware detection – success is more likely by capturing a virtual machine image in WDS and then deploying that to physical hardware). In addition, VMM supports creating template VMs by cloning a VM that is not currently running and it was also highlighted that removing a VM from VMM will actually delete the virtual machine files – not simply removing them from the VMM console.

The other components in the virtual machine management puzzle are System Center Operations Manager (a management pack is available for server health monitoring and management, performance reporting and analysis, including this ability to monitor both the host server workload and the VMs running on the server), System Center Configuration Manager (for patch management and software upgrades) and System Centre Data Protection Manager (DPM), which allows for virtual machine backup and restoration as well as disaster recovery. DPM builds on Windows’ Volume Shadow Copy (VSS) technology to take snapshots of running applications, with agents available for Exchange Server, SharePoint, SQL Server and Virtual Server. Just like traditional backup agents, the DPM agents can be used within the VMs for granular backups, or each VM can be treated as a “black box”, by running just the Virtual Server agent on the hosts and backing up entire VMs.

The final scenarios were all based around Windows Server Virtualization, including running Virtual Server VMs in a WSV environment. WSV is an extensive topic with a completely new architecture and I’ve wanted to write about it for a while but was prevented from doing so by an NDA. Now that James has taken the wraps off much of what I was keeping quiet about, I’ve written a separate post about WSV.

Finally, a couple of points worth noting:

  • When using WDS to capture an image for deployment to a VM, it’s still necessary to sysprep that machine.
  • Virtualisation is not a “silver bullet” – even though Windows Server Virtualisation on hardware that provides virtualisation assistance will run at near native speeds, Virtual Server 2005 is limited by factors of CPU speed, network and disk access and available memory that can compromise performance. In general, if a server is regularly running at ~60-75% CPU utilisation then it’s probably not a good virtualisation candidate but many servers are running at less than 15% of their potential capacity.

Microsoft’s virtualisation technology has come a long way and I expect Microsoft to make a serious dent in VMware’s x86 virtualisation market dominance over the next couple of years. Watch this space!

Looking forward to Windows Server Virtualization

Okay, I’m English, so I spell virtualisation with an “s” but Windows Server Virtualization is a product name, so I guess I’m going to have to get used to the “z” in the title of this post…

Over the last year-or-so, much of my work has been concerned with server virtualisation technologies from both Microsoft and VMware (I haven’t really looked at the SWsoft Virtuozzo or Parallels products yet, although I am interested in some of the desktop integration that the latest version of Parallels Desktop for Mac offers). The majority of my efforts have been focused on consolidating server workloads to increase operational efficiency (hence the lack of focus on desktop products) and even though Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 is a very capable product, it is severely constrained by two main factors – a hosted architecture and a lack of management products – consequently I find myself recommending VMware Virtual Infrastructure because Microsoft doesn’t have a product that can really compete in the enterprise space.

Yet.

A couple of years back, I wrote about Microsoft’s intention to move from hosted virtualisation to a hypervisor-based architecture (in VMware product terms, this can be compared to the differences between VMware Server and VMware ESX Server) and Windows Server Virtualization (codenamed Viridian) is the result.

Last week, I was alerted (by more than one Microsoft contact) to the presence of a video in which Jeff Woolsey – Lead Programme Manager Windows Server Virtualisation team – demonstrates Windows Server Virtualization and System Center Virtual Machine Manager and, if it does everything that it promises, then I see no reason not to use the Microsoft platform in place of VMware ESX Server and Virtual Center for the majority of enterprise clients.

I’ve never doubted Microsoft’s ability (given sufficient time) to grab a huge slice of the x86 server virtualisation market and later this year we should see a new version of Windows Server (codenamed Longhorn) arrive along with Windows Server Virtualization. Soon after that, unless VMware produce something pretty fantastic, I predict that we’ll start to see Microsoft increasing its dominance in the enterprise server virtualisation market.

In the video I mentioned above, Jeff demonstrates that Windows Server Virtualisation runs as a role on Windows Server Core (i.e. a lightweight version of the Windows Server operating system using fewer system resources), allowing for an increase in the number of running virtual machines. Because Windows Server Core uses a command line interface for local administration, most access will be achieved using remote management tools (VMware ESX Server users – does this sound familiar?). Microsoft are keen to point out that they can support an eight-core virtual machine, which they consider will be more than enough to cover the vast majority of enterprise-class workloads; however I imagine that VMware would release a patch to allow this on ESX Server should it become necessary (they already support 4-core virtual SMP).

Continuing to look at what Windows Server Virtualization will offer, according to Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill:

  • There will be no support for parallel ports and physical floppy disks – floppy disk images will be supported.
  • The remote management protocol will change from VMRC to RDP.
  • The virtualization layer will provide the RDP support (rather than the guest operating system) so there should be no more of a problem getting to the machine’s BIOS or accessing guest operating systems that don’t support RDP than there is today with VMRC.
  • The web console interface has been replaced with an MMC interface.
  • It will not be a chargeable product (as for Virtual Server 2005 R2 and Virtual PC 2004/2007); however what James doesn’t point out (and that I think is likely) is that the management products (see below) will have a cost attached.
  • Windows Server Virtualization will require 64-bit processors (in common with most of the Longhorn Server wave of products).
  • It will support 64-bit guests.
  • It won’t be back-ported to Server 2003 (even 64-bit).
  • It will support today’s .VHD images.

What I have not yet managed to ascertain is whether or not Windows Server Virtualization will allow the overcommitment of resources (as VMware ESX Server does today).

From a management perspective, Microsoft is planning to release a new product – System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) to manage workloads or both physical and virtual resources including a centralised console and new functionality for P2V and live migrations. VMM will organise workload by owner, operating system or user-defined host group (e.g. development, staging and production) as well as providing direct console access to running virtual machines (very like VMware Virtual Center). For the other side of management – that of monitoring the health and performance of physical and virtual workloads – there will be System Center Operations Manager 2007 (a replacement for MOM).

In my experience of implementing virtualisation in an enterprise environment it’s not the technology that presents the biggest issues – it’s the operational paradigm shift that is required to make the most of that technology. Overcoming that hurdle requires a strong management solution, and that’s where Microsoft has been putting a lot of work in recent years with the System Center range of products.

Until now, it’s the management of Virtual Server that has been the product’s Achilles’ heel – the combination of VMM and Operations Manager will provide a complete solution for both physical and virtual workloads – and that is potentially Microsoft’s unique selling point – competing products from VMware require learning a new set of tools for managing just the virtual infrastructure, whereas Microsoft is trying to make it easy for organisations to leverage their existing investment in Windows Server administration.

Quoting Mike Neil, Microsoft GM for Virtualisation Strategy in a recent post on where [Microsoft’s] headed with [virtualisation] (via John Howard):

“We want to make Windows the most manageable virtualization platform by enabling customers to manage both physical and virtual environments using the same tools, knowledge and skills”

They may just pull it off – Windows Server Virtualization plus Virtual Machine Manager and Operations Manager may not be as all-encompassing as VMware Virtual Infrastructure but it will come close and it’s probably all that many organisations are ready for at the moment.