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Experimenting With Virtualization – For Free


What is the least expensive way an administrator can experiment with Hyper-V and virtualization?
The standard answer you’ll get online is “Download Hyper-V Server for free from the Microsoft website.” But as we’ll see, there’s an alternative solution to this dilemma – and one that also won’t cost you a dime.

Before we explore that further, we’ll first answer a more basic question: “Why would you want to experiment with Hyper-V and virtualization, in the first place?”

Testing Alternative Systems
Virtualization allows for the creation of different environments within the one system, using software rather than additional bits of hardware. Each environment or virtual machine (VM) may exist as a separate entity – one that doesn’t require you to install another hard drive, partition your existing storage drive, or set up your system in a different way.

Because of this, virtual machines are an ideal testing ground for different operating environments. Using a VM, administrators can install another operating system (OS) within an existing operating system – without disrupting the workings of their primary OS. Any activity in the system set up within a virtual machine is effectively “sandboxed” from the primary OS. So anything you install can be deleted with a few clicks of a mouse, and any errors you make can be rectified just as easily.

Patch Management And Application Piloting
Before rolling out software and security patches to the general user base, it’s essential for developers to test out the functionality of these tweaks. The same holds for completely new applications or software modules. The virtualized storage and execution environment provided by a virtual machine easily allows for this.

Developers and administrators can use storage virtualization to clone their organization’s production servers, and test out variants of their software without causing any disruption to their actual production environment. Hyper-V and other virtualized systems allow users to take periodic snapshots of their server states, so any adverse changes that are made by patches or new applications can be rolled back to a previous stable condition. This enables developers to work all the kinks out of their software before it’s deployed to a production environment or distributed for wider use.

Data Recovery (DR) Testing
System backups and data recovery (DR) are an essential part of enterprise data security, and the assurance of business continuity. For this reason, it’s important to test the integrity of any backup information before it’s restored, or before any changes between data at the primary site and the DR site are synchronized.

Here again, virtual storage provides a safe environment for testing and verification.

The Allure Of Hyper-V
Microsoft Hyper-V (formerly known as Windows Server Virtualization) is a hypervisor-based virtualization system for x86-64 systems. A hypervisor is software which allows one or more virtual machines (VMs) to operate directly on underlying hardware – and the Hyper-V hypervisor supports logical units of isolation called partitions.

A hypervisor instance must have at least one parent partition, running Windows Server 2008. Each parent partition can create child partitions using the hypercall application programming interface (API). The Hyper-V virtualization stack runs in the parent partition and has direct access to hardware devices. The parent partition then creates child partitions to host guest operating systems.

Updates to the system since Windows Server 2008 have added features for multi-tenancy, cloud backup, virtual machine generation, nested virtualization, and shielded VMs using remote servers.

It’s a free virtualization solution for businesses, but Hyper-V suffers from a lack of audio hardware virtualization, live migration, and some graphical issues related to the host OS. The fact that it’s confined to the Microsoft ecosystem is also a drawback for many.

The StarWind Option
StarWind Virtual SAN Free ships with a set of ready-to-use PowerShell scripts that help users to quickly deploy the Virtual SAN infrastructure, and configure most of its features. Any StarWind Free user can modify existing scripts, create new ones, and share them with others. The resulting performance of this solution stands in line with Enterprise-class storage arrays, as the free version of the StarWind platform doesn’t have any synthetic performance limitations.

StarWind Virtual SAN Free comes with an unrestricted set of features including multi-tiered server-side caching available out of the box, scale-up, and scale-out. Protocols are unrestricted, with support for Highly Available iSCSI (with StarWind iSCSI including iSER), Continuously Available SMB 3.1.1 shares, and Failover NFS 4.1 mount points.

Scenarios including “HyperConverged”, “Compute and Storage Separated”, and various combinations are fully supported. StarWind Virtual SAN Free allows the creation of a hyperconverged infrastructure, by converting the internal storage capacity of clustered servers into a Virtual SAN. For “Compute and Storage Separated” environments, StarWind Virtual SAN Free can be used to build the dedicated SAN / NAS storage cluster.

This free version of StarWind Virtual SAN can be deployed on a bare-metal Windows Server, or installed inside a virtual machine. A number of use cases are therefore possible, including shared storage for Microsoft Hyper-V VMs and SQL Server DBs, shared storage for KVM, Citrix XenServer and Xen Project VMs, and shared storage for VMware vSphere Clusters.

To download the StarWind software products, visit the StarWind Software web page. An installer link and the license key will be sent to the e-mail address you specify.

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