A brief comparison of Virtualisation Solutions

If you’ve looked at virtualising a set of servers, you’ll be aware that there are a number of different solutions out on the market at the moment. I’ll break this up by “free” (no cash outlay) vs “commercial” solutions.

This is NOT a comprehensive review, just a quick overview of the particular platforms I’ve used.

Free:

  1. VMware – There’s a free solution available for a single host, but vSphere only allows a single hypervisor, so live migration is not possible. Hardware support is also not particularly broad. Performance is solid, however.
  2. Xen (Open Source version) – This was previously the default virtualisation platform built into RedHat and CentOS. Works well, but my tests showed that system performance was better on KVM unless the system was using a paravirtualised kernel (i.e. the kernel was talking to the hardware with minimal intervention by the hypervisor.) Live migration works with Xen under KVM.
  3. KVM – This is the “Linux native” virtualisation layer. Getting clustering working properly is a pain in the neck – in particular sharing a SAN is difficult to set up properly – but it is possible. However, as far as I am aware the free version of KVM does not have a good way to ensure that only a single instance of a VM is running when sharing resources across multiple hypervisor (host) systems. This may have changed since I last had to set up a KVM cluster a few years ago.

Overall, if picking a “free” solution, I would pick VMware if only using a single hypervisor host or KVM if clustering multiple hosts. My home lab uses VMware. This is partly because it allows nesting of VMs and I don’t want to run multiple hypervisors to reduce power requirements.

In a commercial environment, you should almost always run multiple hypervisors. This allows you to migrate guests between systems for server upgrades and patching, without requiring downtime for your guest systems.

Commercial:

  1. VMware – Solid and flexible, with decent performance. As the industry leaders, there are a LOT of tools around to help. Probably the easiest system for P2V (Physical to Virtual) conversions as well.
  2. Hyper-V – This is the Microsoft solution and as such lies on top of Windows 2008 or 2012. Windows 2012 includes substantial improvements. P2V tools are limited to recent releases of Windows. It is possible to build NEW non-Windows VMs, however. Seems to work well, but I can’t claim extensive experience.
  3. Xen – Citrix Xen is still available as a commercial product but I can’t comment on it beyond saying that hardware support seems a little limited.

While Hyper-V looks cheaper at first blush the VMWare Essentials package covers three hypervisors for a similar cost to three Windows 2012 licences. On the other hand, hardware support under Windows is hard to beat.

In general I would suggest VMWare but check hardware compatibility BEFORE you buy your hardware, and confirm with VMware directly if possible. If you don’t have control over your hardware, or you want your hypervisor to perform other tasks outside of a virtual environment, Hyper-V is a better solution.

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