Six things to consider when choosing a hypervisor

09 April 2020 by Tilly Holland

Virtualisation, for the uninitiated, describes the use of software to provide a complete, functional simulation of a hardware environment. Data can be stored, programmes can be run, and memory can be managed precisely as if the virtual machine were an actual computer. Nowadays, this is very much an accepted part of business IT.

What is a hypervisor?

Also known as a virtual machine monitor, a hypervisor is a process that creates and runs virtual machines. A hypervisor allows one host computer to support multiple guest virtual machines by virtually sharing resources, such as memory and processing.

The benefits of a hypervisor

To understand the benefits in a little more depth, imagine that your company runs half a dozen servers at around 15 percent utilisation. Virtualisation would allow you to consolidate this infrastructure in one hardware environment without compromising performance, as well as to reduce the time and money you’d typically spend adding new hardware to the mix.

However, before you can virtualise, you need to get yourself a hypervisor. In simple terms, this is the system that creates and runs those virtual machines. It’s responsible for making sure that they act like real computers, are straightforward to manage and support, and offer an acceptable level of stability for business use.

In the early days of virtualisation, VMware was considered the undisputed king of hypervisors. Nowadays, however, there are several alternatives on the market – notably Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix, AWS, Azure, and KVM – that are arguably now as proficient and reliable as their more mature forebear. This means that if you intend to take your business down the virtualisation route, there’s no shortage of options to consider.

So, how do you choose a hypervisor? Do you need to pay through the nose for the industry standard, or will an open-source solution do the trick?

Here are six things to consider before you set up your first virtual environment.

Type 1 v Type 2 hypervisors

The first thing you need to know about hypervisors is that they come in two distinct flavours, initially defined by computer scientists Gerald J Popek and Robert P Goldberg in Formal requirements for virtualisable third-generation architectures:

Type 1, or ‘bare metal’, hypervisors. As the name suggests, these run directly on your hardware – there’s no operating system acting as an intermediary, making them the fastest option out there.

Type 2, or hosted, hypervisors. In contrast to their bare-metal counterparts, these run like regular computer programmes on a conventional operating system such as Windows or Linux.

Type 1 hypervisors offer much better performance than Type 2 ones because there’s no middle layer, making them the logical choice for mission-critical applications and workloads. But that’s not to say that hosted hypervisors don’t have their place – they’re much simpler to set up, so they’re a good bet if, say, you need to deploy a test environment quickly.

The cost of a hypervisor

For many buyers, the toughest part of choosing a hypervisor is striking the right balance between cost and functionality. While several entry-level solutions are free, or practically free, the prices at the opposite end of the market can be staggering. Licensing frameworks also vary, so it’s essential to be aware of precisely what you’re getting for your money.

At this point, it’s also worth thinking about whether or not you should stick to one vendor or use several. Different hypervisors offer different sets of management tools and advanced features, so it can be tricky to stay in control when you’ve got dozens of solutions running at once. However, it might also be untenable to use a premium hypervisor for non-critical applications. Consider a tiered approach that matches price point to workload.

How the solution performs

Every hypervisor will differ in terms of strengths and weaknesses, so choosing a hypervisor will depend on the performance aspect that matters most to your business. Is memory management or overall software stability more critical, for example?

Note also that recovering lost data from virtual environments presents a range of unique problems and challenges, so be sure that your choice of hypervisor won’t hurt your chances of saving mission-critical files and folders from catastrophe.

The availability of management tools

Choosing a hypervisor also involves working out whether or not you’re going to want to be hands-on when it comes to managing your virtual machines. Some solutions have better management tools and utilities than others, both in terms of out-of-the-box software and optional add-ons from third-party developers. VMWare customers have the advantage of a diverse set of management tools, developed both by third-party partners and VMWare itself. With some open-source alternatives, there are fewer tools available.

Ecosystem

Finally, it’s tempting to overlook the role of a hypervisor’s ecosystem – that is, the availability of documentation, support, training, third-party developers and consultancies, and so on – in determining whether or not a solution is cost-effective in the long term.

To elaborate, let’s say you weigh up two different high-end hypervisors. One of them might offer incrementally better performance and management tools than the other, but only a fraction of its documentation and support infrastructure. In this circumstance, it’s almost always preferable to go for the hypervisor with the healthier user community.

Support

It is a good idea to choose a solution where you can rely on the high quality of support for both the initial implementation and day-to-day management of your virtual environment. Be sure to research your options as some hypervisors charge a significant amount for support, so it is a good idea to find out the levels of help that are available from the platforms you are looking at.

Want to know more about virtualisation? Download our white paper for more information on the risks of data loss in the virtual environment.