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Will Microsoft Hyper-V take you to the cloud?

You may have heard that virtualization is the first step toward cloud computing. With recent announcements for Windows Azure and Hyper-V, that roadmap is becoming clearer.

If virtualization was the hot technology three years ago, then cloud computing is at that level of excitement today. The initial benefits of the cloud often echo the reasons to move toward virtualization, with a few examples being lower capital costs, easier management and an agile response to the immediate need for computing resources.

But how do the puzzle pieces fit?

The enabling technology for the cloud is virtualization, but implementing virtualization with a cloud provider may be much more complex than in your data center. The basic theories remain the same, just on a much larger scale. VMware has begun to corral this market, urging IT departments to buy into its vCloud management framework in order to make the deployment of local virtual machines in the cloud easier with branded partners.

A case can be made to extend your Hyper-V investment to the cloud as well. Although VMware has first-mover status in the virtual machine–cloud integration game, Hyper-V is on its heels. Microsoft’s deal to integrate Hyper-V with OpenStack, an open-source cloud computing platform, and announced changes to Windows Azure are recent examples of the company’s commitment.

Decisions that come with IaaS
For systems administrators, the most obvious way to take advantage of cloud computing is to put existing machines in the cloud, a concept known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). This type of service allows you to deploy your software -- especially customized software -- just as you usually would within a server. The difference is that it’s now hosted on someone else’s virtual infrastructure accessed via the Internet.

Currently, most cloud providers require you to build your machines in their cloud environments, which is the case with Amazon’s EC2 IaaS platform. But the promise of hybrid clouds -- or cross-premise clouds as Microsoft now calls them -- will allow IT pros to deploy a machine to the public cloud the same way they would deploy it to their own Hyper-V infrastructures.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a Hyper-V or VMware machine image ready to go if you want to take advantage of IaaS today. Just as you would prepare an image for Hyper-V to deploy new servers with critical software already loaded, you can do the same with platforms like Amazon EC2. How you build and access the machine will be different, but your results should be similar.

Cloud automation tools for the enterprise such as CA Automation Suite can be used to smooth the transition from deploying to a virtual environment to the cloud. By adding other features like Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud, you can actually extend Amazon EC2 instances to your private network using your own existing IP subnet with a secure VPN to the cloud. You can also take advantage of Active Directory Federation Services to enable domain authentication on Internet-facing cloud server instances.

With the announcement of the Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role at PDC 2010, Microsoft came through on its promise to enable Hyper-V virtual machines to migrate into the Windows Azure cloud. Up until that point Azure had been strictly a platform play, but Microsoft heard that its customers still wanted the server. This new IaaS role allows folks to run Windows Server 2008 and R2 inside the Azure cloud while still taking advantage of other features like load balancing and shared storage.

These are not new features of course; Amazon’s Elastic Cloud has been doing IaaS longer and has many of the same capabilities. For a Hyper-V shop, though, the ability to put existing Hyper-V images directly into the cloud is likely to take extra steps out of the move from a local virtual space.

Looking beyond the hypervisor
Microsoft’s first foray into cloud computing is based on building a Platform as a Service (PaaS) solution with Windows Azure. The name may be confusing, but it gives developers a place to deploy their projects without regard for server specifics like the Azure API, which comes with its own way to work with cloud storage and other platform features like SQL Azure. This way, deploying an application to your internal virtual machines or the Azure cloud is only one click away in Visual Studio 2010.

The main point to remember, however, is that utilizing cloud offerings often means having modern service-oriented applications that rely on Web standards. Most cloud vendors will only support your servers if they are utilizing a Web service-oriented set of software. Adding compute resources to your applications in the cloud means that you are scaling out -- essentially adding machines when you need capacity. In other words, old style scaled up client/server models don’t do well in the cloud.

Your own private cloud
Building on this idea of the Windows Azure platform, Microsoft is testing Azure in the local network. The company has deployed the Azure appliance -- which is really a stack of software running on local resources -- in order to extend the cloud concept into the data center. This makes it even easier to extend your reach into the cloud since the development style for your applications will never change (it will always be geared toward the cloud).

These types of private clouds will depend on a server environment (including network and storage) that is completely virtualized to address your entire data center as just a pool of resources. This allows you to not only respond to server needs, but also application needs up and down the stack of software and hardware at your disposal.

In addition, Windows Azure Connect (formerly Project Sidney) will be an enabling feature for hybrid clouds, allowing you to extend your IP network similar to how Amazon Virtual Private Cloud operates. This way you can have Active Directory-attached computers in the cloud that work with internal databases, for example.

Although Windows Azure has had some time to bake, Microsoft’s Infrastructure as a Service is playing catch-up since the Virtual Machine Role is still brand new. But this feature coupled with the move to OpenStack spells good things for those hoping that Hyper-V will take them forward toward a cloud solution.

Eventually, many organizations who utilize cloud computing will have a mix of dedicated internal virtual servers, cloud instances and platform services. All of a sudden, Hyper-V as the stepping stone to the cloud is looking like a good bet.

You can follow on Twitter @WindowsTT.

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

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