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In-Depth

Finding a Virtual Solution in Its Own Backyard

Web hosting specialist and Microsoft shop MaximumASP went looking for a virtualization solution. After evaluating the field, the Gold Certified Partner ended up sticking with Microsoft for a new virtual hosting business.

About 16 months ago, when Web hosting specialist MaximumASP LLC was designing MaxV, its new scalable virtual hosting service, it solicited bids from just about every vendor in the virtualization segment, including kingpin players Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. What's surprising is that MaximumASP kept coming back to Microsoft and its then-new Hyper-V hypervisor.

In a certain sense, this wasn't surprising: MaximumASP is a Gold Certified Partner and -- a rarity in a Web hosting space dominated by open source software platforms like BSD and Linux -- a Microsoft-only shop. It isn't what you'd call a fly-by-night Microsoft shop, either: since going live with its "Windows-only business model nine years ago, MaximumASP weathered both the ASP implosion of 2001 and, at this point, two economic downturns. Today, it maintains an infrastructure of 2,400 Windows Server instances, hosting more than 48,000 domain names.

With that pedigree, giving Hyper-V a look-see was understandable; making a bet-the-business wager on it was another matter, however.

Late to the Game
For one thing, Hyper-V wasn't even shipping. Competitive solutions -- including the open source Xen hypervisor-had already morphed through several iterations. VMware, for example, has been marketing virtualization software for a full decade.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has had a torturous relationship with virtualization: Its virtual vision -- which first took the form of its "Viridian" hypervisor -- changed drastically from 2007 to 2008.

Prior to an abrupt about-face in November 2007, Microsoft had struggled to embrace virtualization on its own, Windows-friendly terms. Competitors like VMware, Virtual Iron Software Inc. and Citrix sold hypervisors that functioned independently of any specific operating environment, but Microsoft pushed a virtual vision in which the operating system (in this case, Windows Server 2008) was the hypervisor.

That changed when Microsoft announced both Hyper-V (the official name for the former Viridian technology) and Hyper-V Server in late 2007. Redmond planned to offer Hyper-V in at least two incarnations: first -- and for a mere $28 premium -- as a component of Windows Server 2008; second, as Hyper-V Server, a standalone hypervisor designed to enable the consolidation and virtualization of workloads onto a single physical server. Microsoft also shifted gears on virtual licensing, introducing support for the licensing of Windows guests in several premium flavors of Windows Server 2008.

Dead Serious About Hyper-V
Nonetheless, MaximumASP felt that regardless of its past misgivings, Redmond was dead serious about virtualization. It was making beta code available to partners, developers and other interested parties, for starters. Moreover, Microsoft officials seemed enthusiastic, even making Hyper-V roadmap details beyond the 1.0 release available when asked.

MaximumASP CIO Dominic Foster liked what he saw. With MaxV, his company planned to offer customers an enhanced version of its vanilla hosting experience, complete with dedicated virtual server instances, unprecedented scalability, built-in fault-tolerant resilience (via failover clustering), and integrated backup and monitoring features. Previously, such a bundle would've cost customers hundreds of thousands of dollars; the availability of affordable virtualization technology would enable MaximumASP to drastically reduce that cost. And Hyper-V -- assuming it was ready for prime time -- would help it cut costs even further.

Need vs. Nice
Hyper-V wasn't a slam-dunk fit for MaxV, Foster concedes: it was still missing a few nice-to-have features, such as a live migration capability and support for maintenance windows. On a need-to-have basis, however, Hyper-V more than filled the bill. "When you looked at all of the features that we absolutely had to have, Hyper-V had those features. Everything else would have been nice to have," he comments, stressing that Hyper-V's combination of a strong feature set and bargain pricing tipped the scales in its favor. It was simply a much cheaper option than third-party offerings. "We're not this giant industry that can just toss money at a solution. It's got to make sense on paper. With Microsoft [and Hyper-V], it was less of a learning curve. We could even use Microsoft's System Center to manage everything, just like we do with the rest of our dedicated servers."

Cost was the decisive factor, but the availability of Microsoft's System Center management suite also helped tip the scales in Hyper-V's favor, Foster says. After all, the most challenging aspect of running a highly virtual infrastructure is managing it; that MaximumASP could use one tool -- in this case, System Center -- to manage its physical and virtual server instances was of crucial importance.

Maximum Exposure
That MaximumASP could expose System Center capabilities -- along with some of its own in-house "special sauce" (such as a custom-built control panel) -- to customers was also key. "We've been very pleased with the maturity of the System Center suite of products. Our customers, their reactions have been very positive to the features that we've been able to expose through our control panel," says Ryan Jones, MaxV product manager. "We believe there are opportunities for us to better extend the kinds of features we offer customers [via System Center]. It's something we're actively exploring, and we feel that this [integration between System Center and Hyper-V] is absolutely crucial for us."

Deploying MaxV on top of Hyper-V wasn't a completely mishap-free experience, of course. While none of MaximumASP's "nice-to-have" features suddenly morphed into need-to-have requirements, Foster says the MaxV team is looking forward to Microsoft's Hyper-V R2 upgrades.

"You always encounter stumbling blocks, regardless of how well you've planned. We always say, if it can be broken, we'll find a way to break it. But we haven't encountered anything that we've said, 'Hey, we have to have this, and Microsoft has fallen flat on their face,'" says Foster. "For what they've done with a version 1 hypervisor, we've been extremely pleased. With the System Center suite, the sky's the limit in terms of what you can do with it. If you can imagine it, you can do it."

The proof of any deployment is in its pudding -- in this case, its return on investment. In this respect, MaxV looks like an unalloyed success: despite going live last October -- just one month after the eruption of the global economic crisis -- subscriber growth is already outpacing MaximumASP's expectations. "Adoption is about 1.5 times what we expected it to be. We're seeing much faster uptake than what we had projected. Customer feedback on the product has been overwhelmingly positive," Jones explains. "Basically, we're going to hit our projections ... [that is, where we wanted to be one year from launch] in seven to eight months. MaxV has greatly helped us as a company through this climate."

Mega ROI
In the current business climate especially, the Hyper-V and System Center combination seems heaven sent, Foster says. "We're realizing close to 75 percent cost savings just running Hyper-V over a comparable VMware solution. With Hyper-V, we're essentially licensing the operating system that we'd have to license anyway. If we went with VMware, any of our VMware licensing costs would be in addition to the OS license that we already had to purchase."

A lot of hosting providers try to defray licensing costs by using open source software platforms like BSD to power their virtual infrastructures. Because of its Microsoft-centric business model, MaximumASP doesn't have that luxury. So licensing costs are a big concern -- both for it and its customers.

"Typically over the long term, licensing is one of the [largest] costs that we have," Foster explains. "When we asked our customers what they wanted in a next-generation hosting platform, the first thing that we heard was 'lower cost.' So we had to find a way to drive down costs both on the hardware side and on the licensing side. Hyper-V lets us do that."

Moreover, Hyper-V lets MaximumASP offer its customers unprecedented availability, Foster says.

"A second requirement [cited by customers] was high availability [HA]. Through the integration of Hyper-V with failover clustering, we're able to provide that at a cost that you can't even begin to address with a standalone solution. Nobody else out there is doing the HA, and nobody else is doing the in-depth monitoring. These are huge differentiators for us."

Sunny Skies in the Forecast
Foster and the rest of the MaxV team are optimistic about the future. Recently, for example, Microsoft announced that its upcoming R2 release of Windows Server 2008 will ship with Live Migration capabilities. That release is expected to ship in 2010.

MaximumASP is already fielding inquiries from customers that want to tap MaxV for more than just Web hosting, for example. "We have customers that have basically migrated portions of their back-office software up to MaxV. We have customers with close to a dozen MaxV instances with us," Foster says. "We actually use MaxV for some of our own back-office systems. Everybody from the developers to the support engineers loves it. In 15 to 20 minutes, they've got a new system to test on. In most places, it takes a couple of hours, at least, for [IT to provision] a new server."

Product manager Jones, for his part, thinks things are trending in MaxV's favor. "You've got a lot of people looking at their expenses and saying, 'Do we really need this in-house? Do I really need all of these servers?' With MaxV, we give you that fault tolerance and that redundancy without the additional cost. That's very attractive."

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