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Why the free Hyper-V Server may not be worth it

Boasting the ability to install easily and, perhaps even better, cost nothing, Hyper-V Server is a cost-effective option. Should you use it?

Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 is available for download right now from the Microsoft website, free of charge....

Download it, find a capable server, install it and you are ready to start virtualizing away. Of course, being a free product, Hyper-V Server is limited. It is:

  • Just the hypervisor. There is no GUI, no management tool except a command line.
  • No support for failover clustering, fault tolerance, or anything like that in the box.
  • No support from Microsoft other than the TechNet forums and other paid third parties like consultants and IT service companies.

Still, it is hard to avoid the allure of free. Or is it that simple? I think the case for using the free Hyper-V Server against investing in a standard Windows Server license is much more nuanced than you might think. Let me explain.

Eroded benefit: Limited surface area for attack

Many administrations appreciated -- at least in some respects, if not others -- that the free Hyper-V Server came without a GUI or any sort of graphical management tools. When you boot Hyper-V Server, you get a single-color desktop and a command line in a window, and that's it.

If you are a shop with lots of Windows Server licenses, capable management tools and a suite of Hyper-V related administration utilities, then it is true that a Hyper-V Server instance appears as just another manageable target. If you never sit down in front of your server consoles or remote desktop into them to try to fix things, and instead use third-party management utilities, then yes, there was little downside to using the free SKU and saving some licensing fees, especially for light workloads. But for smaller businesses and other operations that are more price-sensitive and would typically respond to choosing free over paid options as a matter of default, without really considering the overall cost, Hyper-V Server is very expensive.

In Windows Server 2012, Microsoft introduced the ability to turn on and off the entire graphical user interface on a regular installation of the operating system. You could install with a full GUI and configure the server to your liking, and then you could remove the GUI and revert to a Server Core-like installation. When you needed to change something, you could put the GUI back on, and lather, rinse, repeat as your administrative needs dictated. There is still the option during installation to install just Server Core, but just about every administrator I know deploys 2012 with a GUI and then turns it off later. Windows Server 2012 R2 continues this as well as the Windows Server 2016 technical preview. The main benefit of a reduced attack surface -- because you aren't patching Internet Explorer, management tool components or anything else that is not included in the free product -- has been eroded by the fact Windows Server makes it easy to do the same thing now, too.

The remaining advantage: Reduced licensing costs

The big concern, of course, was always licensing cost. Hyper-V Server is of course free and comes with no ongoing licensing or maintenance fees, so you can literally use the hypervisor in production for as long as you want and, as long as you stick with this edition, you will not owe Microsoft a dime.

But frankly, managing the free Hyper-V Server is a nightmare. You don't have a GUI option. You can't install GUI-based management tools directly on the host. You basically have to sit at the command line and use obscure text entries to do much of anything on it. It is a dumb host and small shops simply do not have the expertise to train for installing the server and initially configuring it, much less figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it in the event trouble arises. Plus, you have very few ways of getting support from Microsoft for it. And perhaps worst of all, there is no fault tolerance built in.

You have to invest in paid software to make sure your workloads keep running in the event of outages, hardware or software problems.

I understand that the availability of Hyper-V Server has allowed a lot of shops with limited budget resources to understand the power and capability that virtualizing workloads brings to the table. But, as we move from a time where we were consolidating machines in-house to a time where cloud services are more than capable of serving the needs of price-sensitive customers (with, most likely, even better performance than their own hardware would achieve on their own), it is difficult for me to understand why choosing free Hyper-V Server over standard Windows Server would be a good move.

Ultimately, the free Hyper-V Server exists for marketing reasons -- to compete with the VMware product, to draw new folks into the Microsoft hypervisor ecosystem and to check a box. But for production use, I'd look at full Windows Server, which will be cheaper for you when you consider your time and management experience and the greatly expanded feature set.

Next Steps

Read more about Hyper-V Server licensing

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