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Which Major Hypervisor is Cheaper? Does it Matter?

The search for the answer to this ultimate question is a noble yet daunting quest. Licensing obfuscation makes the answer the stuff of Sherlock Holmes novels and fortuneteller quarry.

A direct comparison seems nearly impossible among the Big Three (VMware, Citrix and Microsoft) hypervisor vendors but you’ll find many failed and frustrated attempts sprinkled throughout the Internet on this very subject. Why is hypervisor comparison pricing such an occult subject when, in fact, it should be very simple? You shouldn’t need to consult a crystal ball, a psychic, Underdog, Mr. Peabody or a curmudgeonly magazine columnist to find the answer—notice that I said “shouldn’t.” What makes a neat and direct comparison nearly impossible is that you’re asking to draw a comparison between such distantly related items as Christmas ornaments and Horse-apples.

You might be wondering if there’s really that much disparity between hypervisor technologies. Well, there is. But there’s even more disparity in price or the perception of price. For my money, the issue isn’t necessarily which vendor’s product is cheaper but which one best serves my needs. It’s unfortunate but price is a major factor in decision maker’s minds.

VMware

VMware is the 800-pound gorilla in the virtualization realm. Every virtualization vendor compares their products to VMware’s and with good reason: VMware lays claim to the lion’s share (gorilla’s share?) of the current server virtualization market. It has the most mature products, the best third-party support and almost ubiquitous penetration into the world’s largest companies. VMware knows it’s lonely at the top but isn’t complacent about its status as the world’s most popular virtualization vendor, since they’re constantly working on new features and versions (the new vSphere 4 line-up, for example) and their marketing and technical teams are in constant motion in bringing you the “You’ll never get fired for buying our products” products and support.

So where, you may ask, is the problem when you have all that and a bag of computer chips with VMware? Well, the world isn’t a simple place anymore; it’s complicated. There was a time (three years ago), when you bought VMware and you liked it; you liked it fine. Now, there’s competition—compelling competition from Citrix and Microsoft.

Let’s look at VMware’s pricing, which they graciously provided me (shown below).

  • VMware vSphere Essentials provides an all-in-one solution for small office IT environments to virtualize and manage three physical servers for consolidating applications and reducing hardware and operating costs, but with a low upfront investment. Suggested US list price: $995 for three servers (equivalent to $166 per processor)
  • VMware vSphere Essentials Plus adds high availability and data protection for a complete server consolidation, management and business continuity solution for the small office IT environment. Suggested US list price: $2,995 for three servers (equivalent to $499 per processor).
  • VMware vSphere Standard provides an entry solution for basic consolidation of applications to slash hardware costs while accelerating application deployment. The key licensed features for VMware vSphere Standard include ESX or ESXi hypervisor, management agent, virtual machine thin provisioning, and virtual machine high availability. Suggested US list price: $795 per processor.
  • VMware vSphere Advanced provides a strategic consolidation solution that protects all applications against planned and unplanned downtime to provide superior application availability and data protection. The key licensed features for VMware vSphere Advanced include the capabilities of vSphere Standard plus live migration with VMware VMotion, continuous availability with VMware Fault Tolerance, network security zoning, and data protection. Suggested US list price: $2,245 per processor
  • VMware vSphere Enterprise provides key features for minimizing downtime, protecting data, and automating resource management. The key licensed features for VMware vSphere Enterprise include the capabilities of vSphere Advanced plus distributed resource allocation, power management, and storage live migration. Suggested US list price: $2,875 per processor
  • VMware vSphere Enterprise Plus includes the full range of vSphere features for transforming datacenters into dramatically simplified cloud computing environments providing the next generation of flexible, reliable IT services. The key licensed features for VMware vSphere Enterprise Plus include the capabilities of vSphere Enterprise plus a distributed virtual switch and host configuration controls. Suggested US list price: $3,495 per processor

And, if you’re upgrading from VI3 Standard to vSphere 4 Advanced, you’ll enjoy a greater than 50 percent off of list price discount at $745 per processor. For those of you who upgrade from VI3 Enterprise to vSphere Enterprise Plus, you’ll dance a jig at $295 per processor to make the transition.

VMware isn’t cheap. It might or might not be the cheapest solution depending on your individual needs but one thing’s for certain, VMware delivers data center-proven virtualization products and services, and has for over a decade.

Check out the VMware Pricing Guide for yourself.

Citrix

Citrix is a relative newcomer to the virtualization market with its purchase of XenSource in late 2007 but it’s shown great improvement and promise since it picked up Xen at version 3.x. XenServer 5.0 and XenServer 5.5 are as fun to use as they are stable and data center-ready. Citrix is no slouch, or stranger, to the data center with their MetaFrame products for remote access and application delivery.

These days, Citrix’ involvement in virtualization coupled with their MetaFrame products has put them on the map as a major player in the virtualization market. Cloud vendors love Citrix XenServer. Amazon swears by it and supports their entire infrastructure on it. But for companies that need virtualized infrastructure, and need to test the waters inexpensively, XenServer is a download, boot and burn away. I like XenServer because I can download a fully functional, data center capable, hypervisor without having to shell out thousands of dollars for it. Only if I need support or advanced management features, would I ever have to write a check.

Choosing XenServer would be easy for me but what about for those who have no virtualization experience or skills? Is XenServer an easy choice for them? The fact that you can grab the software and install it with almost no skill of any kind is a real advantage. The problem arises when you attempt to go forward with your virtualization efforts from that point onward. Not that XenServer is any more difficult to learn than any other technology of its kind but that anyone can download and install it might be a detriment rather than a benefit to them or their potential customers. Unless the person who downloaded and installed the software is an avid and patient reader to get through all of the necessary documentation, there will be a lot of support calls to 1-800-HELP-ME-GET-STARTED-WITH-XENSERVER.

For pricing, Citrix XenServer is, as I said previously, free. What costs you is Citrix Essentials, which is their management suite that takes your simple virtual machine hosting to dynamic delivery hosting. The price for the Essentials package plus support is $2,750 (Enterprise retail) per VM host (Hypervisor system) and $5,500 (Platinum retail) per VM host.

See Citrix Essentials pricing at: Online Order Form.

Microsoft

Hyper-V, especially the R2 version, is the most talked about virtualization product since VMware’s original ESX offering. Microsoft originally entered the virtualization space through its desktop product, Virtual PC but Hyper-V is its first contender in the hypervisor arena. Hyper-V has two modes: Full graphical mode in Windows Server 2008 or the minimalistic Hyper-V CLI mode. In full graphical mode, you can manage VMs from the local machine but in minimalistic mode, you’ll need a Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 2008 computer.

The Hyper-V standalone server is free to download, burn, boot and install. Windows Server 2008 isn’t free but it might well be worth the cost when you factor in VM operating systems. If you purchase Windows Server 2008 Data Center Edition for $2,999 per processor, you can install an unlimited number of Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008 VMs at no additional cost per VM. That quickly adds up to make Hyper-V an easy choice for cash-strapped companies who are already Microsoft-only shops. For GNU Linux installations or other free operating systems, it isn’t a such great deal. And it’s an especially bad deal if you have to pay for licensing for Red Hat, SUSE or other commercial Linux distributions.

Find specific pricing information at: Hyper-V to VMware Comparison and Windows Server 2008 Pricing

It might take a crystal ball to find out the answer to the ultimate question: Which hypervisor technology is cheapest? Both Citrix and Microsoft claim that their solutions are less expensive than VMWare’s. The truth is that it depends on your situation. I know that sounds like a cop-out but it isn’t. It’s an honest assessment from my research. If you run an all Linux shop, it’s possible that XenServer without the Essentials package is a zero cost (excluding hardware) solution. With the Essentials package, you’re still saving a bundle for those Linux systems, commercially licensed or not. For an all Microsoft server setup, Hyper-V (Windows Server 2008 Data Center Edition), with its “all you can eat” Windows server licensing is your best bet. VMware’s solutions might be pricier, if we can believe the price comparisons, but you can bet the farm on it and feel confident that you’ll still have a farm.

The answer, without a crystal ball or psychic nearby, is that you’ll have to put pencil to paper or mouse to spreadsheet to figure out which option is less expensive for you. The other alternative is to mix your hypervisor environments. Use XenServer for all Linux VMs and Hyper-V for all Microsoft implementations. Use VMware when you want to set aside any “ours is cheaper than theirs” arguments and get down to some seriously unbreakable implementations. It’s possible that the cheaper solution isn’t always the better solution for you.

Does price affect your technology choice decisions? Write back and let us know.

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