Life with KVM: Windows Guests

Date: 22 September 2008

One of my criteria for choosing a virtualization platform is that it had to run Windows and Linux guests. Linux, of course, works out of the box on most VM hosts. Windows is a whole other story.

The good news is that Windows Server 2003 and Server 2008 work just fine on KVM. There are, however, a few weird things that I’ve noticed so I thought I’d share some of them with you today.

One of the oddest things I ran into is, I think, a Windows issue rather than a KVM one. KVM uses acpi to tell the guest to power down when you use the system_powerdown command from the qemu monitor. No big deal, Windows does acpi. The catch is that Server 2008 ignores that command when someone is logged into the console; especially when the user has locked the console. That means that trying to gracefully shut down the machine (via the console or from a script) doesn’t work if the user has locked the console.

Since I’m the Windows server admin, I’m usually the one who is logged in so I can unlock the console and continue the shut down. Unfortunatly, I wrote a lovely little perl script to manage the VMs so I’m often stopping machines from a shell and haven’t looked at the console and have no desire to do so. Generally, if I’m shutting a machine down from my script, it means that I’m shutting down several machines and really don’t want to log into each of them. Again, I think this is a Windows thing rather than a KVM bug but it’s something to watch out for.

Next, let’s look at NIC drivers. The default NIC in qemu/KVM is a 100baseT RealTek. It’s a decent enough NIC but it’s only 100 Mbps. You can enable the e1000 NIC when start the guest which gives you a 1 Gps Intel NIC but watch out for driver issues. One post I saw, which I can’t find now, suggests that you should get the latest driver from Intel for this NIC to work properly.

Good news for Server 2003 users. There is a virtio NIC driver for Server 2003 and XP which should greatly improve network performance for those systems. I have heard rumors that it can be made to work with Server 2008 as well but I haven’t tried it.

I mentioned in the previous Life with KVM post that live migration plays hell with your mouse in the virtual console. I have found no way of fixing the mouse tracking short of shutting the guest down and restarting it. Hardly an ideal solution.

On the desktop side, I have a couple of guests running Vista and XP in SDL mode on my desktop. I use the Vista box for my “Windows workstation” so that I can use IE to get into those few sites that don’t like Firefox. (Most of those sites are addresses. Go figure.) If you’re going to run in SDL mode, I highly recommend the -no-quit flag when starting your guest. It prevents you from accidentally killing your guest by hitting the all too convenient ‘X’ in the corner of the window. Also take a look at the -alt-grab flag. It changes the console meta keys from ctrl-alt to ctrl-alt-shift which makes giving Windows the three finger salute a lot safer. (I rebooted my desktop a couple of times because I hit ctrl-alt-del to log in to Vista and the grab released when I hit ctrl-alt.)

All that said, I have a handful of Server 2008 (and a Server 2003) guests running on my KVM cluster and they’re working just beautifully. I have no hesitation recommending KVM as a virtualization platform for Windows Servers. However, you should test it out yourself and make sure it fits your needs.