The beta release of Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 introduces new ways to manage virtual machine memory, graphics and peripheral devices that add new dimensions to the usefulness of Hyper-V. While these advances step up Microsoft's challenge in the virtual server and desktop arena, the preview offered in the beta release reveals that the first service pack release for the most current Microsoft server operating system is still catching up with already established benchmarks for enterprise-class virtualization.
These features, including Dynamic Memory, RemoteFX and improvements to USB redirection, will require IT manager attention as plans are made for server and remote desktop implementations over the next several years. IT managers who are considering data center virtualization projects should put the Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack beta on their immediate evaluation shortlist. The beta is stable enough for use in a test environment. My tests at eWEEK Labs showed that the fundamental implementation changes warrant enterprise users allotting significant test and strategic planning resources for an in-depth look at the SP1 beta.
The SP1 beta became available in July and is offered as a no-charge download from Microsoft.
I tested the SP1 beta on what can best be described as a professional design system because a sufficiently powerful graphics card is not part of our standard server test bed. In this case, I used a white box system outfitted with an AMD Phenom II 1055T processor with 12GB of RAM and an ATI FirePro V8800 graphics card. This system, and all the virtual server instances that I created in my test environment, were running Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 beta version 178.
It's clear that with SP1, Microsoft is signaling that the server hardware of tomorrow will need to be equipped much differently than it is today if certain workloads, including those that vary significantly in memory usage or desktop graphics support, are destined for the data center. I needed to wrestle up DisplayPort-capable monitors (in my case using a DisplayPort to DVI adapter) and lots of fast RAM to support my tests, none of which are yet common fixtures in the eWEEK Labs' equipment locker. Enterprises that are accustomed to buying server hardware with only minimal graphics capabilities will need to become much more savvy in the ins and outs of specifying high-end graphics cards for data center servers that are destined to host sophisticated virtual desktop implementations. This is on top of the growing RAM requirements of dense virtual environments.
The SP1 beta includes Microsoft's answer to VMware's memory management system. In Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 this feature is called Dynamic Memory. I used the Dynamic Memory feature to balance the memory automatically between my VMs based on preset limits. As with most management systems, Dynamic Memory uses policy set in a period of calm to determine how scarce resources (in this case RAM) will be divvied up when in times of tumult and contention.
When I created my VMs, I specified several RAM memory parameters including Startup, Maximum, Buffer and Priority. These parameters make sense in that they specify the minimum amount of RAM needed to start a system, the maximum I would ever want it to consume, a buffer measured as a percentage and the priority of this workload in the overall scheme of business operations.
In my tests, the VMs performed as expected. When I beefed up operations on a high priority VM, the other VMs were starved in order to keep my priority system running at top performance. When RAM requirements on my priority system fell, this resource was reallocated among the other VMs on the test system. During the beta cycle I'll be looking into claims made by both Microsoft and VMware as to the best way to implement memory management systems, a feature that VMware has had for some time.
Remote but not forgotten
RemoteFX is a set of features that in RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol, formerly Terminal Services) that I used in my tests of the beta to look at rich graphics applications and USB redirection. The results were impressive. RemoteFX dramatically improves graphic-intensive applications in a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) environment. A virtual desktop that is hosted on a user client in a LAN performs with no noticeable difference than when it is running directly on the client hardware.
To achieve this effect requires dramatic changes in the server hardware. Because the graphics processing for the virtual desktop takes place on the server-not the client hardware-IT managers will need to beef up servers with professional-class graphics hardware. Combined with the increasing amount of RAM needed to support dense server deployments, system managers should be chucking their time-worn capacity planning formulas. The good news is that Intel and AMD have taken steps to control processor thermals. The new question raised in my tests of the SP1 beta is how good are the add-in card makers doing on this front? With lots of RAM, CPU cores, hopped up graphics cards and the power supplies needed to juice up these systems, the thermal and power gains achieved by server consolidation must now be thought of as the cushion that will be used to implement workloads that RemoteFX capabilities make possible.
Besides the hardware requirements, there is also a fair amount of server and virtual machine setup needed to support the visually impressive results offered by RemoteFX. First off, all participating systems including client devices need to be running SP1, whether that is on Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows 7. Only Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate SKUs are licensed to take advantage of the RemoteFX capabilities. I needed to create Windows 7 virtual machine pools that were capable of supporting the Aero interface. And these systems needed to have the RemoteFX display driver added to them on the Hyper-V management server.
Once the virtual machine was equipped with the RemoteFX display driver it couldn't be seen by the UI when accessed by the Hyper-V virtual machine console, a known issue in the beta. Thus, I had to do a number of configuration changes (such as setting the IP address of the VM) before activating the RemoteFX display capability. Once all the configuration changes were made in my test environment, the visual payoff was impressive. Video played flawlessly and the sound quality was good. Playing the test video side-by-side with a laptop running the video in a standalone Windows 7 environment, it was impossible for me to distinguish between the two systems.
Here and there
I used RemoteFX USB redirection to use the webcam on my test laptop inside a Windows 7 virtual machine. For IT managers who are evaluating VDI technologies, this is an important change and should be explored as an important advance in the Windows Hyper-V environment.
As with RemoteFX graphics, the client system and the virtual machine host must be running SP1. First I had to make a change to Group Policy in my test domain to enable RDP redirection of supported USB devices. On the laptop, I then forced the Group Policy update and then restated the laptop with all my USB devices (a Plantronics DSP 400 telephone headset, built in webcam and fingerprint reader) connected. During the Remote Desktop Connection process I was presented with a configuration screen that allowed me to specify which USB devices should be available for use in the remote session.
The devices worked as expected in my virtual desktop. In the final implementation of this feature I would like to see a more straightforward method of connecting USB devices at startup. For example, a reconfigured Remote Desktop Connection screen implementation that shows all discovered USB devices up front rather than forcing the user to navigate several tabs.