The Real Cost of Free Hypervisors

melissa • December 16, 2014 • 2 Comments

Free is an interesting term to use when we talk about virtualization platforms.  As hypervisors have become standard fare in the data center we are starting to see more questions come up about the costs.  Microsoft made a decision to take the hypervisor out of the cost equation by providing Hyper-V as a free product which suddenly got the eyes of many CIOs onto the product.  So, why isn’t everyone running Hyper-V?

VMware, Microsoft, and Citrix are regarded as the big players in the “enterprise” virtualization space.  That being said, there are many open source alternatives creeping into the enterprise market place such as KVM and Xen.  It isn’t that KVM and Xen are new to the game, but they are relatively new to many organizations.

15361671814_5d5ba5833f_z(Before the cloud, we had hypervisors.  Taken by me at the EFT1 launch)


Why isn’t VMware vSphere Free?
One word: Starbucks.  You can get a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts for 50-60% of the price of a Starbucks coffee, or make it at home with your Keureig.  I myself am guilty of this, and have been known to drink Americanos.  When you ask Starbucks executives why they charge more for their product, there are two answers: “higher quality product” and “because people are willing to pay it”.

VMware holds this same view because they offer support on their hypervisor platform as a standalone product depending on the licensing level you choose.  They do have a free hypervisor also, so there really is a free option to run a VMware virtualized environment, but there is a cost which is both tangible and intangible.  Using the free VMware hypervisor provides the ability to run multiple guest virtual machines on a single physical host.  You can actually run any number of physical hosts, each with a copy of the free VMware hypervisor and a new set of virtual guests.  The challenge here is that you have introduced numerous single points of failure (SPOF) into your environment.

In the event of a physical host failure, all of the guests on that host will become unavailable.  Load balancing will not be available.  A single global view of your environment is not possible because you must view and manage the inventory at the host level one host at a time.  This means that you will need to deploy vCenter to have an enterprise wide view of your virtualized data center, which costs money.  You will want to add some redundancy and load management capability, which means upgrading to the paid hypervisor. Suddenly your free hypervisor seems less attractive when you look at the risk it introduces.

Hyper-V and Management Tools
Microsoft has the same offering.  You can deploy Windows Server 2012 R2 Data Center edition and run as many guests as you can squeeze into your physical host.  What happens when you want to manage those guests though? Adding advanced features for management and orchestration have a tangible and intangible cost also.

In order to fully leverage all of the features of Hyper-V you will quickly find that the System Center suite of tools which has a capital and operational cost to it.  Again, the focus is on building redundancy, protection, and performance into your data center.  This comes at a very real cost.

Open Source is Not Free
KVM is the second most contributed to open source project on GitHub today behind OpenStack.  KVM is entirely free to deploy, requires some sort of additional management package to gain the features many enterprises have grown accustomed to.  We are being told that applications are supposed to not care about where they run which is a valid argument.  Many organizations aren’t ready yet for that type of scale-out application architecture which has held back the adoption of KVM and Xen as hypervisor platforms in many cases.

In addition, many Wintel shops aren’t comfortable with running Linux as their core platform.  This isn’t a slight against it as a platform, but these organizations are heavily invested and very comfortable with the Microsoft Windows platform as a guest platform, and don’t plan on changing anytime soon.  Often times, when an organization introduces a second hypervisor in addition to VMware, the majority of the guest environment determines what it is.  Linux?  KVM.  Windows?  Hyper-V.

Tangible and Intangible Costs
There are real tangible costs to taking on free hypervisors including staffing or support contracts with external organizations.  There is no reduction in hardware, so that cost is maintained in any case.  Building out a redundant, always-on server platform requires tools that cost money both up front and on an ongoing basis for support and maintenance of the licenses.

Can you use more “free” tools for management?  Yes.  These tools are as free as the hypervisors though, so you have to be careful.  This introduces some intangible costs also because of the ability for your current staff to be comfortable in their platform.  Enterprise virtualization providers have a vested interest in maintaining a paying customer base with the offering of high-touch service in exchange.  This will continue to be a value to many businesses who are already invested in the platform, and also new customers who are wanting to leverage that knowledge and support.

When you evaluate a “free” option, be sure that you see the whole picture. Sometimes free isn’t really free.

Categories virtualization


  • Vaughn Stewart • 4 years ago


    Well put, the hypervisor is clearly a commodity. Management suites deliver discernible value, however the largest advantage of VMware may be the spoils of the first mover advantage. The cost of switching hypervisors is laden with multiple migration challenges with most stemming from the volume of data. Start with application interoperability and support, extend same concerns to infrastructure operations, then look at down time, begin with the night mare that is downtime, then volume of data, storage requirements and one quickly can see VMware remaining as the market share leader for no other reason than they were installed first… oh and they have pretty good tech and their customers love them.

    – cheers,