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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

The four most troublesome Hyper-V virtualization problems

Dig Deeper on Microsoft Hyper-V management

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Do you use the free Hyper-V Server? Why?
No - we did not hear good things about it from our sister company.
First of all, almost every virtualization hypervisor requires out of band management e.g ESX, XenServer, Oracle VM x86 using a GUI tool installed on a different computer on the network. So in comparison with the GUI-less Hyper-V product this is actually the status quo. 
Secondly,  Each gui-less hypervisor uses obscure scripts and files for initial configuration so in this respect there is no difference.
When we use free tools in IT we already know we're on on our own in terms of support. Only Linux is free to use with the ability to opt in or out of paid support.
Yes. You cannot beat the price for the software....

Just to clarify:
Hyper-V Server comes with all of the features of the purchased versions of Windows Server running Hyper-V.  Failover Clustering, HA, Live Migration, Storage Migrations, even Hyper-V replica. Every feature.  For free. Yes you are correct, there is no GUI locally, but just like ESXi, you can do all of your host management and VM management from any tool that you can run with the full version of Windows Server with Hyper-V role installed.   If you are a Windows focused admin will there be a learning curve initially using command line to get it up and running, yes, but much less than using ESXi, PowerCLI, the depreciated vSphere client, and vCenter (this would add significant cost to a bare bone virtualization project). Again if you were a Windows Server admin all the tools you are already familiar with like Computer Management, Failover Cluster Manager, Event Viewer, Hyper-V Manager, are all usable remotely to view, make any change or troubleshoot and you already know how to use these.

As far as why to use Hyper-V server over the full windows product, here are a few.

Small organization usually under 7-8 Windows Server VMs.  Above this, it is worth it to buy the Datacenter Edition of Windows to enjoy the unlimited licensing for Windows Server VMs.

VDI:  Since Windows Server Datacenter Unlimited Licensing does not include Windows Desktop SKUs, using Hyper-V Server would allow for a zero cost, full featured hypervisor.

Security:  Less patches means less maintenance.  It is the same mantra set forth by VMware.  Less unrelated software components, the less you need to touch it which potentially equals less administrator caused downtime events.  You can also install Hyper-V server for the very limited attack footprint and by a Windows Datacenter license to enjoy the unlimited Windows Server VM benefit.  This is the same model that most organizations running VMware also employ.

Cost:  $0 for every feature

Here are some resources:

Virtualization Platform Comparison

Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 and Hyper-V Server 2012

Use this Version a Replication Server. Backup Main Server HyperV Servers every 3 -15 Min, with 24 hourly Restore Points. Sure you may not have the Resources to Start the HyperV server but you can Live Export the sever via PowerShell.  Intel NUC PC make good Replicating Server for zip$'s
>No support for failover clustering,
This is lie.