Last week, Microsoft shipped its free Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 virtualization platform and its Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) 2008 R2, the latter of which also falls within the software giant's family of virtualization solutions. Combined with Microsoft's other recent virtualization releases, and the upcoming release of System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2008, these products mark a new generation of the company's suddenly sophisticated and increasingly mature virtualization platform.

Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 (hereafter referred to simply as Hyper-V) is a strange bird. Described as a standalone version of the Hyper-V role that's now included in Windows Server 2008, Hyper-V is sort of a bare-metal version of Microsoft's hypervisor detached from the rest of Windows Server 2008. It installs much like any version of Server 2008, but when all is said and done you're left with a command line UI so stark that it makes Server Core look like a rich interactive video game by comparison. This might just be a first for a Microsoft server product: As configured out of the box, you actually can't do anything with Hyper-V.

Well, that's a slight exaggeration. You can perform the following very limited set of tasks: Join a workgroup or domain, assign the computer name, configure basic network settings, add a local administrator account, configure Windows Update, configure remote desktop, configure regional and language settings, and set the date and time.

Missing from this list, of course, are such niceties as "install a guest OS on top of the hypervisor." To perform such an action, you'll need to hit the server remotely. That can be done with Hyper-V Manager, a sort of bare-bones management tool that comes with the Hyper-V role on Server 2008, or can be installed separately on Windows Vista with SP1. Or, you can use SCVMM 2008 when that becomes available.

SCVMM 2008 is a vastly superior product than Hyper-V Manager, which makes sense. For starters, it's a commercial product, not a freebie. But it's also aimed at larger, distributed virtualization datacenters. So you get a lot of functionality that's missing in Hyper-V Manager.

Even the documentation for Hyper-V Manager is lacking. You can't just install it on Vista and expect it to connect to your server. No, there are undocumented tricks for making this work, and they differ depending on how your PC connects to the server. In my simple test environment, I had to search the Web for a fix that involved a massive number of secret configuration changes on the server and then changing a single obscure security setting in the DCOM Management console. This is the type of thing the installer should do for you after stepping you through the ramifications. Obviously. At the very least, Microsoft could document the process.

Once you do get into Hyper-V Manager and connect to the server, all is well. You can create, import, and configure virtual machines (VMs) and virtual networks, the latter of which is interesting for testing purposes and for segregating environments of multiple VMs. What's missing are the niceties of SCVMM: P2V conversion, auto-failover, simple multi-environment management, among others. The views are very simple as well: You just get a list of virtual machines on a physical server, with no way to even sort by, say, virtual network.

MDOP, meanwhile, is a more mature product, but like Hyper-V (and Windows 2008 Hyper-V) it's going to prove a game-changer. We've discussed MDOP previously in Windows IT Pro UPDATE, but the mile-high view is that this toolset makes it possible to more seamlessly manage large Windows client environments. From a virtualization standpoint, the new R2 release includes Application Virtualization (App-V) 4.5, formerly Softgrid. This is the virtualized application server product, which lets you stream applications to clients as needed. A related tool, Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V, formerly Kidaro), will ship next year and allow multiple versions of Windows applications side-by-side.

With both App-V and MED-V, the underlying VM--with its separate desktop environment--is hidden from the user. And that's why these technologies are so important: As far as the user is concerned, they're simply running the applications they need to get their jobs done. That those applications may or may not be virtualized or centrally managed is unimportant to them. That they just work is.

MDOP's application virtualization technologies are, I believe, the future of application compatibility in Windows. And if Microsoft handles this right, it means that future versions of Windows can free themselves from the backwards compatibility sludge that has dogged every version of this system so far.

I'll be testing Hyper-V and MDOP 2008 R2 (and SCVMM 2008) extensively in the weeks and months ahead. I hope to have a lot more to say about all of these products going forward.