Support concerns repel user from free VMware

At a crossroads between the free VMware Server and ESX, a five-year veteran of server virtualization ponders whether VMware support for the free version will be enough to support his production environment.

Manish Gupta, who manages IT production services at a large pharmaceutical firm in the Northeast, is at a virtualization crossroads. The first phase of the company's VMware-based server consolidation and virtualization project is coming to an end. In the past year, the firm has slashed the number of physical servers from 700 down to 262, 12 of which run VMware GSX and host about 150 virtual machines (VMs). Those VMs run everything from application servers, Citrix and Exchange to domain controllers and SQL Server.

Along the way, the IT staff has gone from 11 people to three, the result of a 70% workforce reduction after a patent infringement lawsuit with one of its competitors sent its revenues plummeting.

Phase two of the company's server consolidation plan is to cut the number of physical servers down even further, until they are at about 70% virtual, 30% physical. "That might be harder," Gupta admitted, and certainly, the firm will never go completely virtual. "We could never get beyond 80% virtual, 20% physical," he said.

To that end, Gupta is piloting VMware ESX Server to determine whether the extra performance, features -- and support -- it gives them justifies the purchase price.

At this point, Gupta is leaning toward ESX, despite the clear success he's achieved using the free version. "From an ease-of-use perspective [VMware Server] wins out every time, hands down," he said. VMware Server, the free successor to GSX, runs on a Windows platform and includes a GUI. Compare that to the bare-metal ESX, with which "you need to know command line, you need to know scripting."

In short, with ESX, "you really need to know what you're doing," Gupta said.

Performance on GSX has also been respectable. In lab settings, the firm ran as many as 30 VMs per physical host, although these days it runs at a more modest 10:1 or 12:1 ratio. As far as physical server hardware goes, the company runs a mix a of two- and four-processor Hewlett-Packard DL380 and DL580s with 12 GB to 16 GB of RAM, as well as Stratus ftServer systems, whose redundancy makes them a good fit for more mission-critical applications.

"If we're leaning toward ESX, it's because it's been established as an enterprise product," Gupta said. VMware still sells support for the otherwise free VMware Server, "but they're saying openly that it's not a production platform; they never used to say that before."

"If we stayed with VMware Server, we'd be pushing the envelope," Gupta continued. "We've done that in the past and been quite successful. But when it comes to an infrastructure platform, we don't want to be on the bleeding edge anymore. We want to be on the leading edge."

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