by Kevin Fogarty

Next Target for Microsoft Virtualization Campaign: Microsoft products

Jul 15, 20084 mins

Microsoft rushed to put out Hyper-V to compete with VMware; now it's up to the rest of Microsoft to support Hyper-V with all the other Microsoft products customers need. When will Exchange run well on a VM?

Following major Microsoft product announcements is like living below a tap-dance studio; even when the incessant hammering stops, you’re always waiting for a new outburst of clopping or for another shoe to drop.

The shoe that has not yet dropped following the Riverdance surrounding the Hyper-V release is word on what the rest of Microsoft is going to do to support customers who want not only to consolidate Windows Server machines, but also those running other Microsoft server-based products.

Usually the delayed wave of products supporting the new OS or data-exchange standard or Office application function isn’t that big a deal—more a matter of adding a couple of API interfaces or UI tweaks than rebuilding the way an application treats its server.

Virtualization is different than most other products, though, more serious even than supporting a new OS in some ways.

Applications running on virtual servers have to contend with restrictions on processing power, memory and access to storage or networks that other applications don’t, even if the VM-resident software doesn’t know it’s sharing resources.

Microsoft applications aren’t particularly good at sharing, anyway. The need to pamper Exchange and SQL Server was one of the driving forces behind the one-server-one-application rule on x86 servers over the last decade or so.

But there’s no way Microsoft can push itself into the virtualization market in a serious way without tweaking its own applications to run in virtualized environments. I wrote a few weeks ago about the lame-ish approach Microsoft’s mid-market business suite group was forced to take to virtualization.

Because they were designed to be easy to install and manage, Microsoft’s two SMB suites come preconfigured in as many ways as possible, ways that don’t include much in the way of virtualization. The SMB group got around that, however inelegantly. But now the rest of the company has to catch up with the Windows Server group and the need to overtake VMware in a part of the market that will eventually seep into every aspect of Microsoft’s customer base.

Each application group is working on Hyper-V integration on its own schedule and according to its own requirements, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. In one way that’s good—each group can do the work in the way that works best for its software. I haven’t tried it, but it’s a good bet that Sharepoint and Exchange have to be tuned in different ways to deal effectively with virtual environments

Requiring one consistent approach and one schedule for the integration would probably tie Microsoft up in knots for months, if not years. Look at how successful it was at rolling out new versions of Windows Server, SQL Server and Exchange Server all at once this past February. (For the record, Microsoft announced at TechEd 2007 that the rollout would happen, and admitted the same day that it wouldn’t make the schedule.)

The next big integration step is probably getting Exchange—which is notorious for its prima donna configuration and maintenance requirements—to run happily on a VM.

Microsoft is telling some beta users that Exchange 14 and Office 14, both of which will probably ship next year, will be able to run on VMs. Exchange hubs and Client Access Servers should be able to run in virtual environments, if what Microsoft is telling my beta sources is true. That would allow customers to put several Exchange servers on one physical machine and load-balance among them.

That would save a lot on hardware costs, though I’m betting I/O will still be an issue, because VMs do nothing to widen the narrow busses between memory, storage and processor.

And you can bet it will be a bigger deal to configure Exchange on VMs than you’d expect. Tweaking an application designed to run fat on as big and powerful a server as possible so that it will run in a leaner environment, even if it doesn’t know it’s sharing resources, is more complex than just adding PDF support to Word or IPSec support to Internet Information Server.

But that’s not a shoefall we need to worry about yet.

The current wait-and-worry is when Microsoft will ship versions of existing applications that fully support Hyper-V and run stably on VMs. Then the only thing to worry about is what virtual environments will do to the long-and-painfully established rules of thumb on how to configure and manage Exchange servers, and whether the tools to help manage them will upgrade to virtuality as quickly as the servers themselves.