With its ability to run multiple instances of Windows on the same server hardware, Microsoft’s Virtual Server 2005 is a great tool for developers wanting to test applications at minimal cost. Likewise it can be used by companies to check out security patches and make sure new applications don’t cause problems before being rolled out in production environments. However, it does suffer a number of limitations and may not be the best virtualisation tool in every case.
But first the good news, starting with the price, which is a lot lower than that of competing products from rival EMC subsidiary, VMware. Indeed, the Virtual Server 2005 Standard Edition is less than half the price of VMWare’s entry-level GSX Server 3 which only supports two processors compared to four with the Microsoft product. And, at just under £700 plus VAT, the Enterprise Edition is cheaper too, and this version can be scaled to 32 CPUs.
Another plus is the ease with which Virtual Server 2005 is installed and run. The software loads like any other Windows application and is then managed from a custom administration Web site. From here you configure one or more virtual machines, each with its own set of virtual hardware devices, including virtual disks and network resources. The guest operating system can then be installed and run as though it had sole use of the hardware involved. However, behind the scenes, the special-purpose VM kernel retains control of everything used during virtual machine operations, creating an isolated environment in which the guest operating system and applications are hosted.
Depending on the hardware available, up to 64 virtual machines, each with up to 3.6GB of memory, can be supported by Virtual Server 2005 and, although it sounds complicated, in practice the software turns out to be remarkably straightforward to use. It’s also effective, with more or less anything that can be done from the standalone guest achievable from within the virtual machine environment, including domain hosting and server clustering. There’s also full integration with Microsoft’s network management platform, Systems Management Server 2003, and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM).
But it’s not all good news, with quite a few limitations to bear in mind. The first of these is the need for Windows Server 2003 as a host platform. Any implementation can be employed, including Small Business Server 2003, but if you’re running Windows 2000 or NT you’ll need to upgrade before installing the virtualisation software. It is possible to use Windows XP Pro instead, but that’s not recommended for anything other than basic compatibility testing due to the lack of scalability and TCP/IP connection limits.
Note, too, that although there’s support for both Intel and AMD processors, including AMD64 chips, Virtual Server 2005 itself is a 32-bit application and can’t run 64-bit guest operating systems. Plus, although Virtual Server 2005 itself can support multiple processors, guest operating systems are limited to just one CPU apiece. Add to that the overheads involved in running several operating systems and it isn’t long before you find applications running out of steam, even on the most highly-specified platforms.
There are limits too when it comes to guest operating systems with official support only for 32-bit Windows Server products, starting with NT 4.0 (with SP6), and each one needs to be licensed as though running on a standalone server. That said, the original Connectix software on which Virtual Server 2005 is based supported Linux too and, surprisingly, that’s still possible – just don’t expect any support from Microsoft. Similarly, although it’s possible to run a desktop operating system like Windows XP, if that’s your aim then Microsoft’s Virtual PC 2004 product is a much cheaper way of going about it.
Developers are the primary market for Virtual Server 2005, but with a free migration toolkit now available Microsoft is also targeting the server consolidation and legacy migration markets. However, Microsoft still has some way to go in this market to catch up with VMware, which recently cut prices and added SMP server support to its latest cross-platform GSX Server release.
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