Microsoft Corp.’s Virtual Server 2005 is probably best viewed as a direct competitor to VMware’s well-entrenched GSX Server, but the degree to which Virtual Server integrates with other Microsoft server products puts it in a class of its own.

To test the product, I configured a variety of systems. The primary server bank was a pair of dual-processor AMD Inc. Opteron rack servers, one with 4GB of RAM and one with 8GB. I focused on the Opterons because both Microsoft and VMware have adapted their products to run on Opteron with enhanced capabilities.

With the exception of memory, Virtual Server 2005’s system requirements are easy to meet. Windows Server 2003 is the only supported host OS, so its hardware compatibility list sets the rules. Virtual Server 2005 Standard Edition works with as many as four CPUs, whereas the Enterprise Edition supports an unlimited number of processors in a single machine.

RAM is the most significant requirement. By default, Virtual Server 2005’s virtual hard drives grow as needed; even if you allocate 20GB of disk space to a VM, it will initially occupy only as much real disk space as the installed software requires.

In addition, Virtual Server’s “differencing disks” feature supports an install-once, run-many configuration. You can launch as many VMs as you please from a single disk image without interfering with the others.

I focused most of my testing on the majority case: hosting Windows. Using each operating system’s ordinary CD-boot installation methods, I built VMs for Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 Server, and Windows XP (Overview, Articles, Company). On the 8GB Opteron server, the performance of Windows burst-demand applications — I primarily used IIS, Exchange Server, Terminal Services, and Visual Studio .Net — was acceptable when running four virtual servers. I could hit six by reducing the memory allocated to each VM. Virtual Server 2005 offers a Web-based administrative interface, but this UI won’t handle the sort of active management needed in a demanding production environment or in situations where you’re closely monitoring a number of VMs for testing. In these settings, the best course of action is to use the supplied set of Virtual Server 2005 management extensions for MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager). MOM handles VMs exactly as it does physical ones but with an added awareness that links the operating status of a VM to the health of the real hardware in its physical host. Virtual Server’s potential is hobbled. Microsoft doesn’t document or officially support the use of Linux or BSD as guest OSes — a departure from the policies of Connectix, from whom Microsoft bought the Virtual Server technology. Also, Virtual Server restricts each VM to a single virtual processor, limiting its best-case performance.

What’s more, guest OSes can’t balance the use of I/O, processor cache and memory. Microsoft claims this is less of a problem for Opteron’s NUMA (non-uniform memory access), which doesn’t require the OS to handle the minute arbitration of multiple streams of data across a single bus.

I was not able to bring in an EM64T-enhanced Xeon system for this review, so I can’t say how much real difference there is between the two architectures.

Virtual Server is price affordably and worth the cost.


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