Hyper-V's Achilles' Heel

MS' greatest virtualization strength -- Windows device driver support -- is also its greatest weakness

A house of cards -- that's how I'd describe the current state of the Windows device driver ecosystem. With so many Windows-compatible devices and so few competent driver developers, it's no surprise that hunting for driver updates has become a necessary part of every power user's skill set. Most of the time, the search ends in frustration: Either the new driver doesn't correct the existing problem(s) or, worse, creates a set of new ones. And now, with the introduction of Hyper-V, we have a whole new failure vector to think about.

In a nutshell, one of Hyper-V's advertised strengths -- the host partition's ability to work with generic Windows device drivers -- is also its greatest weakness. That's because the quality level of Windows device drivers, especially those from third-party developers, is notoriously inconsistent.

I found this out the hard way while experimenting with the Hyper-V Release Candidate on a newly configured Windows "Workstation" 2008 system. After enabling the Hyper-V role in Server Manager, I made the mistake of trying to install the latest ATI Catalyst (8.4) software for the system's X1300 display adapter. The resulting Blue Screen of Death was both alarming (I hadn't seen one of these in months) and puzzling: I had successfully installed this driver before, on the same system, without incident. The only difference this time around was Hyper-V (uninstalling the role and rebooting allowed me to complete the driver installation).

Even more disturbing was the fact that I had just finished watching an old (December 2007) Channel9.com interview with Mark Russinovich, a Technical Fellow at Microsoft and one of the smartest guys I know. In the interview, Mark talks about Hyper-V and how its ability to leverage existing Windows drivers in the host partition gives Microsoft a competitive advantage over certain unnamed competitors (read: VMware), which require custom drivers for their proprietary hypervisor OS layer.

It all sounds great on paper, until you realize that it effectively places Hyper-V -- and the rest of Microsoft's virtualization architecture, for that matter -- at the mercy of the single most glaring weakness of the Windows ecosystem: third-party device driver developers, most of whom have no idea what Hyper-V is or how to avoid tripping over it during driver configuration/installation.

I point this out because it runs counter to everything that makes VMware's ESX platform so compelling. With ESX, you get, effectively, a black box: a proprietary environment, but one with its own, rigorous testing and development model. The pieces that go into that box -- the drivers and services that extend the Console OS layer (which is, itself, a derivative of Linux) -- are carefully vetted to ensure at least a baseline level of robustness.

By contrast, the Windows device driver landscape is more akin to a Wild West shoot-out. And while you can try to minimize the risk by sticking to Windows Hardware Quality Lab (WHQL)-certified products, there's no guarantee that they'll work reliably under the added stress introduced by the shared VM bus architecture on which Hyper-V is built. Eventually, something is going to cause a conflict, resulting in the kind of catastrophic system failure I experienced during the aforementioned ATI driver installation.

Bottom line: What Microsoft needs is more and better certification options. The company needs to expand WHQL to include Hyper-V testing and/or create a parallel program that further tests WHQL candidates for Hyper-V compatibility. Until then, it'll be hard to take its virtualization plans -- desktop or server -- seriously.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Randall C. Kennedy

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?