Hyper-V: Windows 10's killer feature?

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If you're looking for a reason to upgrade from Windows 7, Hyper-V virtualization might be it. Microsoft's virtualization solution is ideal for testing Windows 10.

If you're resolutely clinging to Windows 7 because you can't think of a single reason to upgrade to anything newer, please allow me to introduce you to the killer feature you're missing:

Hyper-V.

Microsoft has spent years polishing its virtualization platform on the server side. Beginning with Windows 8, the benefits of all that work finally began migrating to the desktop, in the form of a feature called Client Hyper-V.

On the desktop PC I'm using to write this article, for example, I can summon a virtual PC running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or the Windows 10 Technical Preview. For those times when I'm feeling nostalgic, I can even boot up a Windows Vista PC and marvel at how far we've come (Figure A).

Figure A

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Figure A

Virtualization technology isn't new, of course. VMware has been building full-strength virtualization solutions that scale from the desktop to the enterprise for year. Oracle has made fans with its free VirtualBox desktop virtualization product, and Parallels has carved out a niche for anyone who wants to run Windows on a Mac.

But Hyper-V has a big edge for IT pros because it's smoothly integrated into recent desktop Windows versions in a hassle-free, it-just-works kind of way. In my experience, it's a robust platform that makes it dead simple (and safe) to test software or services without having to compromise production systems.

There are a few conditions, of course.

If you want the benefits of Client Hyper-V, you'll need to pay for the Pro or Enterprise versions of Windows. You'll also need the 64-bit version, although that's hardly a limitation: Running 32-bit Windows limits you to 4 GB or less of RAM, and you'll want to dedicate that much and more to each virtual machine you run.

There are also a few technical hardware requirements that exclude some older (much older, to be honest) PC designs. (The full list of hardware requirements is available in this TechNet article.)

Most modern PCs built for enterprise use these days are fully capable of running Hyper-V; all you have to do is take a quick visit to the BIOS to enable the necessary options: Intel Virtualization Technology (Intel VT) or AMD Virtualization (AMD-V).

After that step is out of the way, you'll need to enable Hyper-V in Windows. It's an optional feature and is disabled by default. To enable Client Hyper-V in Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, follow these steps:

  1. In Control Panel, click Programs and select Programs And Features.
  2. Select Turn Windows Features On Or Off.
  3. Click to select the Hyper-V option and make sure that the additional items beneath it are selected as well (Figure B).

This dialog box is from the latest release of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, but it's essentially unchanged from the Windows 8.1 version.

Figure B

Figure B

Click OK, restart the PC, and you're ready to go.

Hyper-V experts who are responsible for virtual server farms manage the entire infrastructure using the PowerShell command line, but it's fine to stick with the Hyper-V Manager for desktop duties. Everything you want to accomplish can be done with a simple wizard (Figure C).

Figure C

Figure C

You'll need an ISO file containing the installation files for your virtual operating system. For Windows 10 Pro, those files are at this Microsoft webpage. You'll find the Windows 10 Enterprise ISO on a separate page. (In either case, save the product keys from the download page, because you might need them to get past activation issues during your testing.)

If you decide to run Hyper-V on a PC running the Windows 10 Technical Preview, you'll get access to some new features. There's a new binary configuration file format for virtual machines that replaces the old XML-style text files, making it easier to avoid accidentally corrupting a VM. You can also adjust memory and add a network adapter to a virtual machine on the fly, although the latter feature works only if you've chosen the Generation 2 format when setting up your VM.

But the killer feature, as far as I'm concerned, is the availability of production checkpoints. This feature uses the tried-and-true Volume Shadow Copy service to create a snapshot of your virtual machine whenever you want. Make sure this feature is enabled (Figure D). It's on by default in VMs you create using the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

Figure D

Figure D

To create a checkpoint, choose Checkpoint from the Action menu in Hyper-V Manager or in a Virtual Machine Connection window. The checkpoint appears in a list beneath the VM's entry in Hyper-V Manager, and you can roll back to a previous checkpoint by right-clicking its name in the list and then clicking Apply.

Unlike the old Hyper-V snapshots, these are full, production-worthy backups. Take a snapshot before you try something risky, and you can roll back to the original configuration with just a few clicks.

I use Hyper-V for my testing and analysis literally every day. If you're an IT pro in a Windows-centric environment, you should too.


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