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How to maximize Hyper-V virtualization for better cloud integration

Deploying Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization is a good first step toward cloud integration, but there are other steps IT admins can take to tighten that integration.

Developers with limited financial resources have been taking advantage of public cloud services to bootstrap projects for a while now. But IT administrators must approach the prospect of deploying public cloud services from a different perspective.

For instance, how do they extend our application servers to a cloud? How do they provide a unified single sign-on to their domain from a disconnected location? How do they ensure their service level agreements are met?

IT administrators need to look at these factors and decide how to take advantage of this new resource while providing security, predictable availability and integration points into the existing infrastructure. If you have already deployed Microsoft Hyper-V virtualization, you have already taken a step toward the cloud.

There are several types of clouds ranging from platforms to storage, but most enterprise administrators are looking to begin at the infrastructure level. Taking advantage of the computing resources you already have to drive your servers is a first step towards cloud integration. Since cloud infrastructure is based on some form of hypervisor virtualization at its core, having a well virtualized infrastructure in your own data center is a key step in preparing to move into the cloud. VMware has made quite a bit of noise lately in providing cloud services based upon the VMware ESX compatibility, but that only validates the approach of moving virtual machines into the cloud just as you would move them between internal hosts.

Which systems are cloud capable?
When deciding what your cloud capable systems will be, look at your portfolio of applications to make some decisions. Many companies are beginning with less critical applications to test the waters. You may want to target applications that don’t require much integration with back-end systems, such as certain websites or self-contained web systems. Many are also being cautious about security-sensitive information. Even if a cloud system has not been exposed to a major data hack, it’s better to be safe and get familiar with the environment rather than risk losing sensitive data.

Integrating Hyper-V virtual machines into the cloud
The integration for Hyper-V comes in a couple of flavors. Microsoft likes to work with partners as well as offer their own solutions. First, Microsoft’s Azure platform offers a form of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) keys in on the Microsoft-centric data center. Offering SQL Server in the cloud and an IIS-based .NET platform, for instance, makes it much easier to move existing systems developed for the Microsoft ecosystem into the cloud.

The one area Microsoft was behind on was in offering a full Hyper-V server alternative managed by the administrator. But now it offers the virtual machine (VM) role on the Azure platform. This server allows you to load customized software with a custom Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system installation. You are still limited to the rules of Azure, meaning you must deploy stateless applications to prevent data loss. Classic, stateful client/server implementations will not be supported; think web services when determining an application to deploy in this role.

The VM role allows you to run your own VHD in the cloud, although Microsoft is still managing the underlying operating system, network and IP structure. The main difference in using a VM role versus the other roles offered is that patching is not managed automatically. Although it is still in beta, the hope is that the VM role will integrate into the Azure solution soon.

The future version of System Center will offer tighter integration with Azure, providing a single way to manage and monitor VM roles. Although VMware’s vSphere is ahead in this space as far as integration goes, Microsoft’s System Center 2012 should bring a tight integration with your on-premises Hyper-V machines and Azure VM roles. This will include provisioning, self-service features and the ability to upload your VHDs into the cloud or deploy custom templates to deploy standardized images without uploading additional bits.

To be clear, Azure is not a pure IaaS play. It is really centered on being a Platform as a Service for building .NET applications than running custom operating systems that include applications. Microsoft does understand that there are far too many apps that can’t  just be deployed from a .NET console, so the option is there.

If you want the ability to deploy a true IaaS model, you may want to look toward providers that allow you more freedom in what you deploy on a cloud machine instance. The biggest example of IaaS is Amazon’s EC2 service, which allows you to spin up a machine instance on the Amazon cloud. While Amazon will only support certain types of deployments that are web-services centric, they do give you quite a bit of freedom.

Some vendors will offer assistance in transferring your internal VHDs into the cloud, but many will want you to work off a new build. The integration points may be important if you plan on using a cloud provider in a hybrid situation, where you want to scale a privately hosted application into a public cloud. If you plan on keeping these application servers and networks separate, then this will not be as much of an issue.

Other aspects to understand include possible authentication integration. If you want those public cloud machines to operate using your internal Active Directory, you will either need to federate your directory or provide some sort of virtual network inside the public cloud that allows for an extension of your network into the vendor’s space. Amazon paved the way in this space with its Virtual Private Cloud, but other vendors are eager to offer custom integration points such as this as well.

It’s still early for Hyper-V cloud
Although it is still early days in the cloud space for Hyper-V, it is developing quickly.  You  would be doing yourself a favor by beginning to explore your options and choosing a couple applications you can use as proof of concept. Development environments and web facing applications are great first candidates. Once you understand the power of cloud services, you’ll have it as another tool that allows you to bring scale and power for a reasonable startup cost along with ample  global availability.

Eric Beehler
has been working in the IT industry since the mid-'90s, and has been playing with computer technology since well before that. He currently provides consulting and training through his co-ownership in Consortio Services, LLC.

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