VMware passed over for XenSource by Web hosting provider

Web services provider Joots uses XenSource virtualization software to host client applications for less cost than deploying VMware ESX.

Joots LLC, a small Hawaiian Web development and marketing company, is using virtualization software from Palo Alto, Calif.-based XenSource Inc. to dramatically expand the scope of its business, all for much less than it would have paid to deploy VMware ESX.

The company's business used to be limited to developing and administering Web sites and applications for clients located on the island of Hawaii. But poor service and reliability from a third-party hosting provider pushed Joots to take the plunge and start hosting the Web applications itself.

"Before we were just a pass through. We created and administered the account, but it wasn't on our server by any means," said Matthew Putegnat, Joots' chief information technology officer.

Ultimately, though, Joots hopes to become a full-fledged provider of Web services, Putegnat said -- "everything from a word processor and a spreadsheet, to blogs, wikis, IM -- you name it." Other services listed on the Joots Web site include video conferences, "cashflow" and eCommerce, to name a few.

About nine months ago, Joots rented a rack in an Equinix co-location facility and started to build out the infrastructure it would need to assume hosting its clients' applications. Virtualization quickly emerged as a way Joots could cost effectively serve clients on limited hardware, while providing them the requisite isolation from one another.

"Virtualization was a simple means of preventing performance problems in general, not to mention the security benefits it gives you," Putegnat said.

Putegnat set out to build Joots' first virtualization host: a dual-processor dual-core AMD Opteron server with 12 GB of RAM, dual Gigabit Ethernet NICs and four 500 GB SATA hard disk drives. The company loaded it up with XenSource's XenEnterprise, a commercial version of the open source Xen hypervisor.

Why not VMware?

Why did Putegnat choose XenSource over more established options like VMware or Microsoft Virtual Server?

The answer to why not Microsoft Virtual Server was simple. "I'm not a big Microsoft fan," Putegnat said. Plus, since the applications in Joots' software stack are virtually all open source, he was more comfortable with a Linux-focused virtualization suite.

VMware, however, also runs on Linux quite well, and Putegnat did in fact consider it. But the more he looked, the less he thought it was necessary. "We could have shelled out for VMware, but it didn't seem that important," he said. Joots paid $350 for its initial XenSource license. In comparison, list price for a two-processor VMware Infrastructure 3 Starter edition is $1,000, and it ramps up to $5,750 for Enterprise Edition.

Putegnat doesn't regret his choice. He currently runs 25 dedicated Red Hat 4.5 virtual machines on the first XenSource node and has since added a second server on which he hosts about 40 Debian 3.1 VMs. Each Joots client receives its own dedicated VM that runs a basic LAMP stack plus Joots' proprietary content management system.

Lessons learned

Putegnat has learned some lessons since he first started using XenSource.

First of all, he learned that he prefers Debian to Red Hat. "With Debian, I can reduce hardware resources [e.g., RAM] without having to go through the Red Hat process."

He's also learned to start a VM off with minimal RAM, and ramp it up on an as-needed basis. "The Debian VMs run with 64 MB of RAM without any trouble," he said, but he usually ends up assigning a virtual machine between 128 MB and 256 MB of RAM. Putegnat monitors the performance of each VM using XenSource's Java-based performance management GUI.

And while Putegnat is more than satisfied with the amount of CPU and memory he included in his first server build, a subsequent box got a storage upgrade from 7,200 rpm SATA drives to 10,000 rpm models with larger cache. "I learned that there's a balance between the hard drive and hard drive performance, particularly when I'm really pushing it."

Joots' clients, meanwhile, are enjoying the newfound stability that comes from having their systems hosted at a reliable co-location facility, and are none-the-wiser that their environments are running in a virtual machine. "Now, when the phone rings," Putegnat said, "I've come to rely on the fact that our infrastructure is solid."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Alex Barrett, News Director

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