Rolling Review: VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3.5

Apr 24, 2009 (08:04 PM EDT)

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VMware Infrastructure 3.5, the 800-pound gorilla in our Rolling Review of hypervisors, continues to lead the virtualization pack in performance, support, and scalability.

In tests, the VMware Infrastructure suite -- comprising the VMware ESX hypervisor, vCenter Server, and client tools -- got our virtualization job done handily. But whether it's worth the premium price may be another matter.

Version 3.5 answers some calls for easier setup and management features. For example, VMware offers Guided Consolidation, an easy-to-use analysis tool for virtualizing Windows environments, along with new patch management capabilities and enterprise-class support. In addition, the VMware ecosystem offers thousands of ready-to-roll virtual appliances, and API tie-ins and vendor partnerships provide limitless management, reporting, automation, storage, and security options.

VMware also has the most difficult learning curve for novice admins and the highest price tag among the participants in this Rolling Review -- does this sound like a winning combo to you?

Citrix Systems promises that you'll only need a few minutes to achieve Xen, and we had our base Virtual Iron, Parallels, and Hyper-V test platforms up in less than an hour. Our virtualization-neophyte experience wasn't as smooth with VMware. Yes, ESX 3.5 did everything we asked of it for our small-business model test case -- and more -- but it took the better part of a day to get our base environment up and running. This was a "real world" test, using IT admin test subjects who have limited familiarity with virtualization and no familiarity with VMware. This is in line with many small IT shops, working under constricted budgets, with limited training options and cranky CFOs, faced with aging hardware and flat staffing models.

For shops still running VMware ESX 3.0, the incremental upgrade to 3.5 makes sense for the added management features and VirtualCenter improvements. New customers looking to get their feet wet can check out the 60-day free, full-featured trial to assess and experiment with physical to virtual conversions, consolidation modeling, and plain old-fashioned comfort and ease of daily use. Then again, all vendors in this Rolling Review offer some form of free demo. During the course of our testing, the price points changed for some participants, and additional technology and improvements have been introduced.

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To be clear, VMware is well worth a look. The planning tools are unmatched, and the potential for patch management and green computing options can make the high price worth it for many. The product just took a bit more head-scratching and manual-reading for initial setup than the competition.

We brought a Windows administrator with minimal virtualization experience into the virtualization test lab to help us get a newbie's perspective on the physical-to-virtual scenario. The best quote from our VMware experience? "Whaddaya mean I need an Oracle database? Oh -- SQL will work? Great. So here we go, setting up a SQL 2005 server to manage our VMware environment. This is what I need to use to get a global view, right?"


To be clear, setting up a single ESX 3.5 host managed by the standard VM Infrastructure Client tool was fairly painless. Unless you want to access iSCSI storage, that is. Or tinker with the many robust networking or configuration options.

Whereas other vendors in this Rolling Review address storage area networking during basic setup, the default ESX install assumes local storage. Configuring iSCSI, setting VMKernal interfaces, selecting network interface cards for data access, picking a SAN target, and setting up data stores took many, many steps. Setup was made possible using VMware Infrastructure Client's built-in help, but it was laborious compared with most competitors' iSCSI out of the gate.

We built four ESX hosts on virtualization-enabled HP multicore Advanced Micro Devices servers. Everything was connected to our Dell EqualLogic 5000-series SAS and iSCSI arrays. As we've said before, having many platters across 48-TB drives is great for I/O and fantastic for virtualization clusters. Sixteen 15,000-rpm drives in the SAS array also made quick work of storage tasks; for our money and for most small shops, we'd consider the higher capacity of the Serial ATA. After a hiccup attempting to install Virtual Center and its requisite MS SQL 2005 on a 64-bit Windows 2003 box, we easily set up a spare Windows XP workstation as our management host. Data and SAN connections were physically divided to two Cisco Gigabit Ethernet switches, and everything was first run on a closed network for base testing, then opened up to a 400-user public network to get some real-world experience.

We configured individual hosts with both Infrastructure Client utility and Virtual Center. Within VirtualCenter, we created a test cluster with our four physical hosts and played around with manually shuffling virtual machines from host to host with VMotion. Even though we've been doing this for a bit, we still smile when we watch a running, CPU-loaded Windows 2003 VM hop from host to host in a matter of seconds without dropping a beat (or a ping). We used the VirtualCenter to create a resource pool so that we could conceptually view and manage our four servers as an aggregate pool of CPU and memory resources.

We have no complaints with performance; we were very impressed with 32-bit Linux and 32- and 64-bit Windows performance in our small-business tests. We readily built clusters of shared resources relying on the SAN for centralized storage. After the painless installation of VMware client tools, cloning, snapshots, and VMotion flexibility all met or exceeded our ease of use and performance expectations when compared with real-world physical servers; you're doing yourself a disservice if your shop rejects virtualization out of hand.

Rolling Review
Business value
We tested virtualization management platforms to see if they lower hardware costs and save time and headaches for IT departments.
Reviewed so far
Citrix XenServer
Performance, features, and price are appealing; lacks VMware's third-party support.

Microsoft's Hyper-V
Free, easy segue to basic virtualization for Microsoft shops; features cost extra.

Parallels Server for Mac
The only game in town for Mac server virtualization, but its features are limited.

Virtual Iron
An easy-to-administer product at a very aggressive price.

VMware VirtualCenter
Pricey market leader offers unmatched support, quirks.
Our EqualLogic SAN goes one step farther, offloading snapshot tasks to the storage array -- this is the first chance we've had to test this out. Offloading snapshots to the SAN hardware saves CPU resources in the host cluster. This is another example of a benefit from VMware's place as front-runner: New features from third-party vendors in the virtualization arena come out for the VMware ecosystem first, then broaden support to include other vendors.

To dig further into our small-business simulation, we virtualized real-world Windows servers using Virtual Center's Guided Consolidation tool. While the provided recommendations were fairly straightforward, the real benefit of VMware's Active Directory integration would shine in a larger data center environment, where the tool continually probes and monitors physical Windows servers as candidates for conversion. Once converted, the automated rule sets assigned VMs to hosts without issue. A big, shiny consolidation button sits on the Virtual Center 2.5 interface, offering suggestions and impact analysis for virtualizing physical boxes in your shop. As we added VMs or purposefully "mismanaged" our test farm, Virtual Center soundly adapted to changing loads and existing rule sets and VMotioned us out of harm's way. Everything worked as planned.

On a final note, automated patch management left us with smiles all around. After a somewhat byzantine process of configuring VirtualCenter to add the Update Manager component and client plug-in, we set up automated patching for ESX hosts and Windows VMs using Update Manager. We followed VMware's recommendation and set up a three-hour interval to check for updates. After selecting security patches for application, we picked an idle host for updates. We also readily applied Windows security patches to specific VMs and had comfort knowing we could easily roll back to pre-patch snapshots. This isn't a magic bullet for all data center patch requirements, but it is a nice plus from VMware and is a clear example of how virtualization can reduce administrative burdens.

VMware ESX 3.5 starts at a base price of $1,540 for two processors, Distributed Resource Scheduler starts at $2,414, and the VMotion/Storage VMotion combo starts at $4,024. VCenter Server Foundation starts at $2,040 for three physical hosts and ranges up to $6,044 and beyond to manage hundreds of hosts. Various bundles and a la carte options also are offered.

Joe Hernick is an industry analyst and former Fortune 100 IT executive.