How to choose the right virtualization solution for your business

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Let’s just get something out of the way: your organization has probably already committed to a virtualization vendor. It’s probably either VMware or Microsoft, or maybe it’s Citrix, or maybe it’s one of the many other smaller players.

Fine.

But vendor agreements expire, new decisions can be made, and frankly migrating from one to another isn’t the nausea-inducing, career-ending activity that you might think. It’s been done by others, and nobody died. So even if you’ve picked sides already, it’s worth re-visiting those decisions, if for no other reason than to validate your decisions.

So what do you consider? Here are seven things you should think about when choosing a virtualization solution for your business:

1. The future

If I’m being honest, I think – currently – Microsoft’s future in virtualization looks a little bit brighter than VMware. But, I also don’t think that’s a valid business consideration, whether we’re talking about Microsoft, VMware, Citrix or others. We can’t really see much further than a couple years out in this industry, and both Microsoft and VMware are legit, going concerns in this space. What might or might not happen in five years isn’t something we can factor in today, so make your choices based on other criteria and just plan to be flexible for whatever lies ahead.

2. Hypervisor functionality

This is also not an area where I think you get a lot of good, business-level differentiation. Marketing copy notwithstanding, both Microsoft and VMware – not to mention the other players in the space – offer about the same level of raw hypervisor performance, and about the same level of core hypervisor features, as each other. Yeah, you can nitpick, and that’s fine if you’re defending a position, but from a purely objective point of view, this isn’t a strong area of distinction.

3. Supporting technologies

But what about the technologies that surround the hypervisor? Microsoft, for example, works as well as VMware or anyone else on the ubiquitous Storage Area Networks (SANs) we tend to use for virtual storage. But Microsoft also offers alternatives. Their SMB 3.0 protocol can out-perform iSCSI for block-level storage, and their Storage Spaces feature in Windows Server can let you build ridiculously cheap “commodity” SANs. VMware, with its huge connection to EMC (and now Dell) has perhaps less reason to offer less-expensive storage stacks. So this is definitely an area for consideration, along with vendors’ approaches to network virtualization (VMware leads here, at present), workload abstraction, and so on.

4. Price

If you’re running Windows workloads, vSphere has traditionally been a lot more expensive in terms of total ownership cost, because you still have to buy Windows licenses on top of your vSphere expenses. Windows Server’s Datacenter Edition, with its unlimited guest OS licensing, often wound up being tons cheaper. That may change, with Windows Server 2016 shifting to per-core licensing on the host, but pricing is definitely an area to consider.

5. Manageability

The real differentiator in the virtualization space these days is how do you manage the virtual infrastructure? After a strong start with its System Center family, Microsoft has stumbled a bit, and seems to be in a phase of re-thinking its strategy and approach to be more cloud-aligned. That will likely give them the edge in the long run, but for right now it can be an even game – or even a bit in VMware’s favor – when it comes to managing large virtualization commitments.

6. Lock-in

Another real consideration – and one too few of us remember to think about – is how “locked in” a vendor wants you to be. Microsoft has arguably made strides in less lock-in; System Center Virtual Machine Manager, for example, is happy to help you manage vSphere hosts, and Microsoft Azure plays well with vSphere virtual machines for things like site recovery services. Having flexibility should be a major consideration, because you want the ability to use the right tool for the right job, not just the tool you’re forced to use because of some vendor commitment.

7. Strategy

If you want to try and peek into a crystal ball, then consider a vendor’s strategy in key areas. For example, containers – a lighter-weight approach to virtualization spearheaded by Docker – is definitely going to be a thing in your future. VMware has essentially no answer to containers at this point, because containers currently presume a host OS to run on, which VMware doesn’t offer. Microsoft’s Windows Server Containers and Hyper-V Containers play well with Docker, and show that the company is at least moving in a good direction in that space.

Do you need to pick sides?

And here’s the ultimate question: Why not run more than one vendor’s hypervisor? Assuming the costs prove out, what’s stopping you? Hopefully you’re not answering that with “my team’s skills,” because that – in this day and age of agile IT – is an utterly unacceptable answer. IT should be able to support any direction the business needs to go, and shouldn’t be dependent upon a completely homogeneous environment. IT shouldn’t be a barrier, but an enabler. So skill up the team, if need be, and let the business make its decisions based on business criteria, not on a lack of capability.

Stay tuned as updates roll out from this year’s VMworld conference, and learn more about the technology trends your business should be keeping up with in our report.

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Contributor

Don Jones

Don Jones' broad IT experience comes from 20 years in the business, with a strong focus on Microsoft server technologies. He's the author of more than 45 technology books, including titles on administration and software development, and writes monthly columns for the industry's leading periodicals. He's an in-demand speaker at technical conferences and symposia worldwide, and is widely recognized as one of the top trainers in the Microsoft sector.