Microsoft’s free Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 is a version of Windows Server Core dedicated to one function only: hosting virtual machines. Can you really get something worthwhile for nothing from Microsoft? The answer seems to be yes, especially when it is trying to win market share from well-established competitors. I’ve had test servers running on the earlier release of Hyper-V since Server 2008 first appeared, and it’s worked well.
Hyper-V R2 has a number of interesting new features including live migration. Another, less exciting but of great interest to folk such as myself who are constantly running trial software, is that dynamically expanding virtual hard drives now perform nearly as well as fixed-size virtual drives. Dynamic drives are far more convenient.
I downloaded Hyper-V 2008 and installed it on a spare machine. The main requirements are a processor that supports hardware virtualization (Intel VT or AMD-V) and hardware Data Execution Prevention (Intel’s Execute Disable Bit or AMD’s NX bit); note that these also have to be enabled in the BIOS.
Once it is up and running you are greeted with a couple of text windows, which feels sparse compared to the usual Windows GUI; but does provide a convenient menu for the things you are likely to want to do next. Actions include naming the computer, joining a domain, downloading updates, adding a local administrator and configuring remote desktop.
Working with Server Core does have some hassles. For example, many third-party drivers and tools come as setup executables that will not run without a GUI. The major vendors should have come to terms with this by now, but it can be a problem particularly with older hardware.
The next step (if you are on Windows 7) is to download and install the Remote server administration tools for Windows 7. Note that after installing, you have to go into Control Panel – Programs – Windows Features and enable the Remote Server Administration Tools, at least including the Hyper-V manager. Then you can run this from the Start menu and connect to your new server.
This step can be problematic. My first attempts failed with RPC permission errors, which I solved by joining the hyper-v server to the Windows domain. If that is not available or desired, there are other fixes.
Other remote admin tools can be useful too. For example, you can connect the Event Viewer to check out the logs.
Once Hyper-V manager is connected, you can create a new virtual machine with a few clicks. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu server iso, copied it to the Hyper-V server, and set it as the DVD drive for the new machine. Started it up, connected, and I was ready to go.
Hyper-V Server is not the only free virtualization platform. Let’s note that completely free platforms also exist – like, indeed, Ubuntu with KVM. I’d also note that VMware is a more mature and advanced platform, despite Hyper-V’s rapid progress.
Still, what you get with Hyper-V server is a polished and easy to use solution that integrates easily with Windows and Active Directory. This is a great deal.