Upgrading to a new operating system brings the risk that your apps suddenly no longer work. That concern intensifies with moving to Windows 8 because of the big change the operating system represents compared to earlier version.
The large number of changes to the visual looks could cause some apps problems and with ever operating system change there is always the risk of a small change that breaks some special functionality your program depended upon to work. Many people also need to continue using programs they either cannot or choose not to upgrade, but won’t work under Windows 8 — in a few cases a program doesn’t recognize the newer version of Windows and simply refuses to run.
There are several ways to help keep these programs working when you upgrade to newer versions of Windows. Virtualization provides perhaps the most reliable solution to this problem. While other companies such as VMWare offer better known virtualization solutions, Microsoft does produce its own virtualization solution.
Windows 7 included Windows XP mode, the ability to run an instance of Windows XP inside of Windows 7. It used Microsoft’s virtual machine technology, known as Virtual PC, and allowed you to install programs that worked as they were running under Windows XP because they did.
Virtual machines have benefits including the ability to run machines to test new software without the risk of breaking your main work computer, developing software in a specific environment other than the one that your tools run on, and any other case where you need an additional installation of an OS without the cost of new hardware appeals.
Beginning with Windows 8 Microsoft has replaced the lackluster Virtual PC with newer virtual machine support based on the Hyper-V technology Microsoft developed for Windows Servers. How well does it work and can it be used in place of traditional virtual machine programs like VMWare Workstation? Let’s take a look.
Requirements and Installation
Hyper-V is a full visualization solution. Instead of the application based visualization that Windows XP mode focused on, Hyper-V is designed to allow the creation of full software installations within your Windows 8 environment. It’s targeted at more advanced users such as developers, software testers, and IT professionals and in the same class as tools such as VMWare’s Workstation. It’s available in Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise editions.
The hardware requirements require a 64bit processor supporting SLAT. This includes every Intel i3, i5, and i7 processor and many recent AMD CPUs. Microsoft provides instructions on determining if your computer can support this feature. You also must have at least 4 GB of RAM in the computer.
If you plan to run several machines or machines that need more RAM, then you’ll want more memory. In addition the installed operating system will require disk space on your computer and you will need enough free space to install the operating systems that you wish to run. And any installed systems must be licensed just as if you were installing it onto a physical computer.
Microsoft makes it a bit difficult to install Hyper-V. You install Hyper-V from the Turn Windows Features on or off dialog. You can get there easiest through the Control Panel. From the Windows 8 desktop bring up the charms windows and select Settings. Now select Control Panel.
The Windows Features settings can be reached by clicking on the Programs category or the Programs and Features setting if you show individual icons in the Control Panel. Now select the Turn Windows Features on or off link.
In the dialog that appears you will see several options for Hyper-V. Expand the menu by clicking the plus sign and you will see two options. The first Hyper-V Management Tools installs the software needed to manage the virtualized environment.
The second Hyper-V Platform installs the actual components needed to make Hyper-V work. If this is grayed out then your computer does not support a needed component to install Hyper-V. Check both options and click OK to install. After the install completes, you’ll need to reboot your computer before trying to use Hyper-V.
After the restart you’ll now see a new Hyper-V Manager added to the Start Page. The console is similar to the one in Windows Server 2008 and identical to the one included with Windows Server 2012. This is where you will create and manage your virtual machines along with starting and stopping them. You can also create and manage virtual hard disks from the manager. The Manager can also manage other computers and Windows 2012 Servers.
How Does Hyper-V Compare to VMWare?
For a long time VMWare Workstation has been the leading virtual machine software for Windows. That hasn’t changed, but Hyper-V under Windows 8 feels at least close to VMWare Workstation. From my testing so far, it’s missing several features. There is no support for 3D hardware acceleration in Hyper-V, which VMWare suppoers.
The loss of the ability to connect a USB device plugged into your host computer to a virtual machine instead also is a noticeable loss. The integration of the clipboard between virtual machines and the host server also isn’t as clean as VMWare.
There is one feature that Hyper-V brings from the server side that Workstation cannot match. The ability to live migrate a virtual machine while running. This has become a pretty standard feature for server virtualization, but new to the desktop side. It allows you to move a virtual machine from one disk to another while it is running. So if you have a virtual machine on a server, you can move it to your computer without having to shut it down.
The improvements from the desktop virtualization included in Windows 7 to that included in Windows 8 are substantial. However power users running VMWare likely will find nothing new here. If your needs for virtual machines are complex or established, then Hyper-V likely will not provide what you need. However it has the great advantage in being free if you use Windows 8 Pro or Enterprise where VMWare is quite expensive.
The loss of the app virtualization abilities seems to remove a valuable and unique feature of earlier virtualization and I’d like to see it return in the future. Overall users already using virtualization probably won’t be find a reason to switch, but if you’re new to virtualization you’ll likely find it a good starting place to begin.