by Kevin Fogarty

Virtualization with Microsoft Essential Business Server 2008: Old Apps Cause Trouble

May 14, 2008 4 mins

Look out, mid-market IT shops looking to use Microsoft's new Essential Business Server 2008 in an enterprise filled with virtual servers: Some old, resource-hogging apps, Exchange and SQL Server, pose gotchas.

Ninety minutes into a complex product demo and briefing, I generally pity only myself.

Yesterday, though, I found myself having to feel for the Microsofties who were pitching me on Windows Small Business Server 2008 and Windows Essential Business Server 2008—preconfigured sets of databases and applications aimed at small- and mid-sized businesses. Microsoft announced pricing details and a testing program Tuesday.

It’s not that the virtualization flaw that became obvious isn’t significant; it’s just not their fault.

The two spokeswonks from the Essential Server Solutions group, Dean Paron and Eric Watson, demonstrated the integration among the various products in painstaking detail. They focused on the install-and-setup routines designed to manage all the small configuration details customers generally don’t read through 300 pages of documentation in order to learn. (See more info and demos on the packages from Microsoft here.)

They made a point of saying both the small-business edition (SBS) and the version for mid-sized businesses (EBS) would run in virtualized environments from the day they ship.

In the case of EBS, though, they had to qualify that. EBS will run on a single physical server, with each of its applications running in VMs. But Microsoft won’t guarantee it will run well unless it’s running on hardware specifically tested and recommended by Microsoft. The list of recommendations isn’t available yet, but will be by the time EBS ships, Watson promised.

Any new server running VMs has to be configured carefully; run more than one server instance and you’re going to suck up more compute cycles, need more input/output, more storage, more of everything.

And the Microsoft suites were carefully configured to run in one-, two-, three- and four-server configurations, depending on the size and requirements of the customer. They were designed for convenience, not flexibility. (It may be only me that thinks it’s funny that one of the key “integration” factors was that Microsoft figured out for you which of the various applications, editions, service packs and other version data were compatible — a problem that only exists because Microsoft ships and supports a million versions of each of its products and doesn’t differentiate clearly between them.)

But the reason EBS especially won’t run under generic virtualized setups is that some of the applications in it—Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2008, SharePoint, two versions of Forefront Security and Systems Management Server—are such resource hogs that they’ll overwhelm the I/O and resources of even many servers set up to support VMs.

That’s not a problem with EBS. It’s not even a problem with the most recent versions of Exchange or SQL Server—the biggest resource hogs. It’s a problem with the far earlier versions of those products, which were designed—as was Windows— without much regard for the computer resources they’d be using. Microsoft has always just assumed customers would gear up to run the newest, fattest software.

Once it shipped and made a big market out of Exchange and SQL Server, which it did quite effectively, Microsoft was trapped into supporting older versions even as it was trying to adapt the new versions to accommodate new developments like, say, virtualization.

It’s not like most IT managers don’t have legacy issues of their own. I’ve talked to any number who took bad jobs at startups specifically to build an IT infrastructure cleanly from the ground up.

But they don’t usually think of Exchange or SQL Server as “legacy,” and they don’t usually expect commercial applications to be the holdup when they want to move to a new technology that should already be supported.

Convenience is the point of the ESS products, not flexibility. No one buys preconfigured mid-market business-application suites to fit highly customized environments.

Virtualization is hardly an esoteric technology, though, and Exchange and SQL Server aren’t exactly high-performance computing. It shouldn’t be necessary to make your hardware or virtualization choices based on what is, frankly, pretty mundane software.

There have been a lot of predictions—many made or instigated by Microsoft— that Hyper-V and Windows Server 2008 would make VMware and the rest of the virtual-server products on the market irrelevant.

But, saddled with drawbacks and problems with an increasingly long string of products designed for the workgroup and implemented in the enterprise, Microsoft is going to have an even harder time with that conquest than it would have otherwise.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. Unless the briefing runs longer than 90 minutes; then it’s every victim for himself.