VMware pros predict rocky transition to embedded ESX 3i

Despite the benefits of the new embedded ESX Server 3i, VMware users and partners may find themselves at a loss without access to the old Linux service console.

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VMware Inc.'s new embedded ESX Server 3i has its benefits in terms of reliability and security, but it may also present some problems for existing VMware shops, experts say. That's because the new design precludes the execution of programs and scripts in the service console, a function that was stripped out to attain 3i's lean and mean 32 MB footprint.

Banishing the service console
For more on embedded hypervisors:
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Under the old model, ESX users had access to a Red Hat -based Linux service console in which third-party independent software providers (ISVs) loaded agents and users ran Bash and Perl scripts. Console-resident agents monitored hardware health and provided integration points to outside software packages, while users relied on shell scripts to automate any number of tasks.

"I used [scripts] all the bloody time," said Andrew Kutz, an analyst with Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group and a former ESX administrator. Things he did with a script included -- but were not limited to -- managing snapshots, backing up the service console, exporting log files and gathering statistics.

People [could] do the things that they had to do; but by the same token, they could do whatever the hell they wanted.
Raghu Raghuram,
vice president of platform productsVMware Inc.

With 3i, instead of executing scripts directly on the Linux-like console, administrators will have access to a remote command line interface (CLI) from a standalone virtual infrastructure (VI) client to perform old ESX commands, said Raghu Raghuram, VMware vice president of platform products.

But remote CLI allows administrators to invoke only ESX-specific commands, such as those that start with the "esxcfg" string; Linux-specific facilities are not included. That means that "the commands we use to gather information will remain the same but how we invoke them will have to change," said Alistair Sutherland, director of Taupo Consulting, a VMware integrator in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Granted, running scripts in the service console is somewhat of a relic from a previous era, said VMware's Raghuram, even if the practice persists today. "Before VirtualCenter, we had the service console concept, and we used to encourage people to go there," he said. But with the advent of VirtualCenter in 2004, VMware introduced a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that people can use to interact with ESX hosts, and "that philosophy is still unchanged; both 3 and 3i still connect to VirtualCenter."

But not everyone has heeded VMware's advice and written to those APIs, said Kutz, who calls the VMware Infrastructure SDK "cumbersome." "You can't really blame [the script writers]," he said. The majority of ESX administrators are not developers, and it's much easier for them to write a shell script than it is to engage in "a full blown development project" in C# or Java.

VMware's Raghuram acknowledged that 3i represents a transition for existing VMware customers but said that removing the service console "didn't come up as an important issue with customers."

Rogue users put ESX Server at risk
And ultimately, removing the service console is for the greater good, he argued. "There are pluses and minuses to the Linux service console," Raghuram said. On the one hand, "it allowed people to do the things that they had to do; but by the same token, they could do whatever the hell they wanted."

While most ESX administrators are disciplined in how they use the service console, they have been known to do all sorts of crazy things, said Brian Smith, a product manager for Symantec Corp.'s NetBackup data protection software. Smith said that some customers ran NetBackup media servers directly on the console, putting the reliability of the ESX host at risk. "We don't support that configuration, but the customer is always right," Smith said.

Crazy users aside, a number of ISVs that have taken advantage of the service console to run specialized agents, and they are in the process of re-architecting their solutions.

For example, Veeam Software CTO Andrei Baronov conceded that several of the company's products, including its popular FastSCP copy utility, rely on the service console and will need to be re-architected. "Some of our development will be obsolete and will need to be redeveloped," Baronov said, relying instead on VMware APIs.

Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Vizioncore Inc., which makes the popular vRanger and vCharter (formerly esxRanger and esxCharter) backup and DR tools, is also in the process of re-architecting its products for 3i. "We're taking this opportunity to re-write our applications," said Jason Mattox, vice president of products and support; the company will rely on new libraries and the VMware Consolidated Backup framework. "There's no scripting you can do anymore; it's a development-type integration."

But despite the work that this represents, both of these users seemed to appreciate why VMware is going down the embedded road and eliminating the service console. "I like the idea of using a common unified approach," Baronov said, adding that writing to the APIs "is not hard."

Vizioncore's Mattox said that getting rid of the service console not only is better for security and reliability but also should help Vizioncore's own apps perform better too. Before, processes were "stuck in CPU 0," he said, and had to share only 200 MB of space." By moving processes out into user role space, "They have full reign to go wherever they want" and take advantage of far more compute resources.

Months ago, VMware began alerting its partners that the service console would not always be available. Conceivably most third parties have had a chance to get started down the development path. Veeam's Baronov said the company expects to have its revamped products ready by the time ESX 3i starts shipping, and Vizioncore's Mattox said predicted the revised Ranger and Charter versions would ship in the first quarter of 2008.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director.

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