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Workstation Virtualization Goes Mainstream With Windows 8

It wasn't so long ago networking was a complex technology that was the preserve of highly skilled engineers, expensive hardware, and mysterious MAC and IP addresses. Now it's so mainstream it's not uncommon for a 12 year old to switch on a consumer-grade router, connect a laptop, and do whatever it is that 12-year-olds do on the Internet.

And virtualization will soon be so mainstream that the same 12 year olds will be creating and firing up VMs on their laptops like there's no tomorrow. That's what Microsoft is banking on, anyway. Yesterday, Matthew John, a Hyper-V program manager at Microsoft, announced what many already suspected: The next version of Microsoft's desktop operating system will have heavy duty virtualization built in.

"In building Windows 8 we worked to enable Hyper-V, the machine virtualization technology that has been part of the last two releases of Windows Server, to function on the client OS as well," he said.

Now it's certainly true that this is not the first time that virtualization will have been possible on a Windows system--for example high-end versions of Windows 7 include Windows Virtual PC and XP Mode, which is essentially a virtual machine running Windows XP within Window 7. And Microsoft has other virtualization technologies as well, including MED-V. Not to mention VMware's VMware workstation, Oracle's VirtualBox and other, similar products are Windows compatible.

But what's new is that this is the first time mainstream Windows desktop users will have, at their fingertips, the ability to create virtual machines, configure them, load an OS and boot them up on their desktops, as part of their Windows operating system. You can't get much more mainstream than that.

According to John, the version of the Hyper-V hypervisor baked in to Windows 8 (or whatever it ends up being called) will be pretty sophisticated. It will run 64-bit OSes in virtual machines and support monster VMs with 32 processors and 512GB RAM. It will also allow the desktop machine to be put into sleep mode (automatically pausing any running VMs), include dynamic memory allocation--similar to the feature included in the version of Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2, updating via Windows update, snapshotting, and Live Storage Move--similar to VMware's Storage vMotion. "With this, you could move the VM's storage from one local drive to another, to a USB stick, or to a remote file share without needing to stop your VM," says John. VMs will also be able to talk to the outside world through a wireless NIC, using a Microsoft Bridge that carries out MAC translation between virtual NICs in each VM and the desktop machine's physical wireless NIC.

There will be a few limitations: You'll have to run a 64-bit version of Windows with 4GB RAM--or more than 4Gb if you want to run five or more virtual machines. Which, let's face it, you probably won't. Features like BitLocker, which rely on specific hardware (the Trusted Platform Module in the case of BitLocker), or games that require processing using a GPU, won't work well. Latency-sensitive high-precision apps like live music mixing apps that rely on sub-10ms timers may also have problems in a virtual machine.

The root OS--i.e. Windows 8 itself--will run on top of the Hyper-V virtualization layer once Hyper-V is installed. This will be special in that it will continue to have direct access to all the underlying hardware so applications like BitLocker will work fine when they are not running in virtual machines, but John hints that the fact that the root OS is running on top of Hyper-V will have some negative consequences. "..latency-sensitive, high-precision apps could still have issues running in the root OS," he warns. That's virtualization overhead for you ...

There's still quite a lot we don't yet know. Will you be able to import and convert VMware VMs? What guest operating systems will be supported? Only Microsoft ones, or will you be able to run Linux and other OSes in Windows 8?(On the server version of Hyper-V you can run CentOS, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server as well as various Microsoft OSes.) Will enterprise users be able to manage the VMs on a Windows 8 machine from Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager? This will all become clearer in the coming months.

When you think about it, this is an obvious move for Microsoft. After all, one thing it has that its virtualization rivals like VMware do not is a huge presence on the desktop, through its Windows operating system. So why not leverage that advantage by sticking its Hyper-V virtualization technology out there under every desktop PC user's nose? By putting Hyper-V into the mainstream where everyone can try it out and get used to it, it stands to gain a great deal in the small and medium-sized business space. Just think of the potential for virtual appliances when everyone has Hyper-V on their desktop. (Or would that be under it?)

It won't make a huge difference in the enterprise virtualization space, but then Hyper-V never has made much of an impression there anyway.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on September 9, 2011
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