How to Build an Enterprise-Grade Hyper-V Infrastructure on an SMB Budget

Introduction

With Microsoft’s continued enhancements to Hyper-V, the number of companies, small and large, that are using Hyper-V in their datacenter continues to increase. While some small companies have opted to build a completely free Hyper-V infrastructure, the lack of centralized graphical management and other advanced options usually pushes them to spend more. However, the price of running an enterprise-grade Hyper-V infrastructure has come down (while the tools have gotten even better). Do you want to build an enterprise-grade Hyper-V infrastructure but keep the costs to a minimum? Today, it’s easier and more affordable than ever before. Let’s find out how.

What Makes a Hyper-V Infrastructure “Enterprise-Grade”?

The term enterprise-grade, when applied to a Hyper-V infrastructure, is worthy of defining, as what may be enterprise-grade to one company may be enterprise-inadequate to another. After all, every company will have different needs and expectations from their virtual infrastructure.

Minimally, an enterprise-grade Hyper-V infrastructure, should posses the following characteristics:

  1.  Centralized management
  2.  Security
  3.  Data protection
  4.  Shared storage
  5.  Agility / Scalability

While SMBs may not need all this functionality, medium and large enterprises will require it.

Traditionally, the software licenses for such a virtual infrastructure could cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the number of hosts. With more affordable and more feature-rich Hyper-V solutions available today, I wondered if it would be possible to create such a powerful virtual infrastructure on an “SMB budget”?

Building an Affordable Hyper-V Infrastructure

While there may be doubters, a Hyper-V infrastructure can be affordable AND enterprise-grade at the same time (the two aren’t mutually exclusive). To be more specific on what enterprise-grade features this Hyper-V infrastructure would offer, let’s list them out.

Hyper-V Virtual Infrastructure Enterprise-Grade Features

  • Live migration of virtual machines and virtual disks
  • High availability for virtual machines
  • Centralized management for the entire Hyper-V infrastructure
  • Automated virtual machine provisioning from templates
  • Centralized Hyper-V cluster management
  • Image-level backup and recovery
  • Virtual machine replication with centralized management
  • Agentless anti-virus scanning with centralized management
  • Converged virtual storage with caching, storage-level snapshots, thin provisioning, and deduplication

Traditionally, a Hyper-V infrastructure would be built using Windows Server with the Hyper-V role, the System Center Suite, a shared storage array, and other third-party tools such as backup and recovery. The pieces of that traditional Hyper-V infrastructure can be costly. For example, based on the System Center 2012 Licensing Datasheet, just to obtain centralized Hyper-V infrastructure management, you would have to purchase the System Center Suite, which would cost you $3,607 for every 2 CPU sockets (yes there is a less costly per-VM license but it just doesn’t make financial sense for most companies). Because of how SCVMM is priced, companies are forced to purchase the System Center Suite even if all they really wanted was Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM). If that is all that they need, it’s a high cost to pay if you only use the suite for centralized virtual infrastructure management.

Recently, a number of new tools have become available, have updated their feature-set, and have reduced their price tag, making it less expensive to build a Hyper-V infrastructure than before, while still obtaining all the critical enterprise-grade features that you require (and maybe even some that you didn’t expect).

5 Pieces Needed to Build Your Affordable Hyper-V Infrastructure

Let’s break the pieces down, one by one.

#1 Hypervisor

The first piece of any Hyper-V infrastructure is going to be Hyper-V. There are many admins out there who still don’t know that Hyper-V, with all the advanced enterprise-grade features, is completely free. No, you don’t need to purchase Windows Server to run Hyper-V. The free edition of Hyper-V is called “Microsoft Hyper-V Server” and you can download it here.

The free Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 will provide you with all the same advanced Hyper-V features and scalability as Windows Server with the Hyper-V role enabled. For example, live migration of virtual machines and virtual machine storage, replication, and even high availability. However, the limitation with the free edition is that there is no local GUI. While you can install the Windows remote server administration tools on another Windows system (like your local desktop), you will have to manage each Hyper-V host, individually. In other words, there is no centralized management for Hyper-V.

#2 Centralized Management

Instead of spending a small fortune for the complete System Center suite (most of which you don’t need just to create your enterprise-grade Hyper-V infrastructure) the best alternative is to use the new 5nine Manager for Hyper-V. With the new edition, you’ll gain that centralized graphic management for Hyper-V at a tiny fraction of the cost you would pay for System Center. 5nine Manager can do almost everything that System Center Virtual Machine Manager can do, and a number of things, it does even better.

Here are the Hyper-V centralized management features offered by 5nine Manager:

  • “Shared nothing” live migration and storage migration
  • VMs Guest connection views through FreeRDP or Microsoft controls
  • VM tasks logging
  • Hyper-V high availability cluster administration and configuration
  • Live Migration between Cluster nodes
  • Multiple Hyper-V Versions Support – option to run different Hyper-V versions in the same infrastructure but still gain centralized management and advanced feature compatibility

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Figure 1:
Centralized management of your Hyper-V infrastructure

What 5nine Manager does better than Hyper-V manager is that it gives you a single centralized management interface for managing the free Hyper-V infrastructure and Hyper-V clusters. No longer do you have to use the Windows Failover Cluster Manager to check cluster status. Additionally, with 5nine Manager you’ll gain the following (over SCVMM) –

  • Centralized management of Hyper-V logs for all hosts, resulting in faster troubleshooting and less downtime

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Figure 2:
Centralized management of Hyper-V host logs

  • Real-time monitoring of cluster, Hyper-V host and virtual machine performance with alerts to ensure that you can fix issues before they actually happen
  • Integrated Best Practices Analyzer – a graphical interface for running the popular best practices analyzer for Hyper-V across all Hyper-V hosts, to ensure compliance and configuration standards

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Figure 3:
Centralized and integrated best-practices analyzer for Hyper-V

  • Set VM’s IP from the management console – ability to configure IP addresses for guest operating systems running inside Hyper-V
  • Ability to run a local GUI on Windows Server Core host or free Hyper-V Server host – option to run additional instances of 5nine Manager locally on Free Hyper-V hosts (or Windows Server core hosts), as needed, for local host configuration

To implement centralized management for the Hyper-V infrastructure, the cost is only $199 per host for 5nine Manager. Thus, for a 3 host Hyper-V cluster with 4 sockets per host, the cost would be $597 (compared to roughly $21,642 for the alternative).

Enterprises also need performance graphing and monitoring and 5nine Manager includes Cloud Monitor for Hyper-V that provides centralized performance graphing and capacity analysis for your Hyper-V infrastructure.

#3 Data Protection

Enterprise-grade infrastructures need enterprise-grade data protection that recognizes Hyper-V, knows how to intelligently backup virtual machines, and offers advanced features that allow you to get your servers back up fast, should disaster occur. A number of backup vendors have released new editions that support Hyper-V and are offered in both free and low-cost editions. Each provides reliable backup in the free version but the commercial version offers advanced features such as replication, compression, deduplication, file level recovery, and more.

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Figure 4:
Veeam Backup and Replication for Hyper-V

Three good Hyper-V backup solutions, each offered in a free and commercial version are:

#4 Shared Enterprise-Grade Storage

Enterprise-grade virtual infrastructures need high availability so that if a single virtualization host fails, another host will power up and run the virtual machines from the failed host, getting applications back up in minutes. To create a Hyper-V high availability cluster, you must have shared storage. The least expensive way to do this is to use a separate physical server and make a shared directory structure to house the virtual machines running in the cluster. While this may not cost a lot, a single host isn’t going to be “enterprise grade” because if that host fails, the HA cluster is down. Yes, there are ways to use multiple Windows Servers to provide highly available shared storage however, a better way, in my opinion, is to converge the storage with the compute layer. With hyper-converged storage, you are able to leverage idle server disks and hosts to provide storage within your existing hosts.

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Figure 5:
Hyper-converged 2-Node Storage and Hypervisor Cluster

A hyper-converged storage solution, such as Starwind Virtual SAN, creates a virtual shared storage array across your existing hosts. Not only does it provide the shared storage that Hyper-V needs but it offers advanced SAN features like caching, storage-level snapshots, thin provisioning, deduplication, and replication. Most importantly, Virtual SAN provides high availability for your data (such as you Hyper-V virtual machines) such that if one host fails or one disk is lost on a host, your Hyper-V virtual machines keep on running.

Starwind Virtual SAN comes in a free edition (with a few limitations) and a commercial edition, priced at under $1000.

#5 Security

Finally, the last piece of building a Hyper-V enterprise-grade infrastructure is security. While some companies may not immediately think that they need security in a small lab environment, any company using Hyper-V in production must implement security products and practices to keep the environment secure and safe. One piece of the security puzzle is the scanning of the virtual machine disk files for viruses and malware. This is especially important if you are running any virtualized desktops in your environment.

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Figure 6:
Agentless Anti-virus scanning Hyper-V virtual machines

For an additional $50 per host (up from $199 to $249), you can gain host-based (not agent-based) scanning of all virtual machines in the Hyper-V infrastructure. Because it’s host based, it doesn’t cause VM / application performance degradations like agent-based anti-virus software does. Best of all, it’s administered through the same interface as your centralized Hyper-V management tool – 5nine Manager.

On top of anti-virus, for enterprises that want to take security a step further, they can implement multi-tenancy, VM isolation, and enforce Hyper-V compliance with 5nine Cloud Security, available in a free trial and commercially starting from $199 per 2 CPU.

Challenge: Build Your Own Affordable Hyper-V Enterprise-Grade Infrastructure

Now do you think that you can build the enterprise-grade features that you and your company require but do it on a “SMB price”? I encourage you to give it a shot! Start with Hyper-V Server, free edition, add 5nine Manager for Hyper-V, layer on shared (but highly available), then add data protection, and security. The costs for a real-world, enterprise-grade cluster with 5nine and the other tools mentioned could be as little as $500 per host, making enterprise-grade virtualization affordable for every company, small and large.

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