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Citrix's Project Cowley adds distributed virtual switch to XenServer

Known as Project Cowley, the beta release of a XenServer 5.6 feature pack includes a new distributed virtual switch and other features to bring greater parity between XenServer and VMware.

Citrix Systems Inc. has posted a beta version of the next service pack for its XenServer product -- aka "Project...

Cowley" -- on its website , whose new centralized management appliance for Open vSwitch brings distributed virtual switching on par with Cisco's Nexus 1000v for managing VMware environments. It may also bring greater parity between Citrix's XenServer hypervisor and VMware's in terms of virtualization management and cloud computing capabilities.

Users and analysts are intrigued by the new centralized support for Open vSwitch, which previously required management within each virtual host. The new version includes a virtual appliance that can be downloaded and imported into a XenServer host to centrally manage all vSwitches on other hosts.

The beta of the Citrix service pack is available for download on the Citrix website in advance of the company's Synergy conference next week in Berlin. The official company launch for the beta had been planned for next week, but information on the feature pack has already been posted to the company's website.

Distributed Open vSwitch: A competitor to Cisco's 1000V?
Ryan Koelewyn, an IT network analyst in California's public sector, uses VMware's vSphere and XenServer. Koelewyn says that not only does the service pack bring Open vSwitch on par with Cisco's 1000V, but also that it brings Citrix more on par with VMware. Still, he added that the documentation he's reviewed on the new release recommends separating the vSwitch management appliance from the hosts it manages. "Using a centralized appliance for it is odd to me," he said. "Something like that would also require HA [high availability], which probably means two or more extra hosts."

Koelewyn said he wasn't able to download the ISOs for the new feature pack yet but likes what he's read about the addition of remote monitoring for distributed switch ports. "Cisco switches and routers already have that capability."

Along with VMware, Cisco currently markets the most widely used distributed virtual switch on the market, the Nexus 1000V, for which some VMware users would like to see a competitor.

"The open source distributed virtual switch has a lot of equivalent capabilities to the Nexus 1000V," said Chris Wolf, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. This includes the ability to enforce security policies through access control lists (ACLs) and monitoring capabilities, Koelewyn noted.

"What brings people to Nexus is that it's a Cisco-branded product," Wolf added. Open vSwitch supports Xen, XenServer and KVM, but not yet VMware or Hyper-V . But "there's a lot of potential for the Open vSwitch, and it can emerge as a primary alternative to the Nexus 1000V."

Snapshots, self-service portals, HA restart priority
In addition to the Open vSwitch enhancements, other significant features of the XenServer beta include new policy-based snapshots, a self-service portal, and high availabiliy restart priority.

The new feature pack adds a policy-based scheduler to XenServer's existing snapshot capabilities for image-level backup and live-memory shapshotting. Users can now archive snapshots of XenServer machines in regular increments, such as every six hours or every 24 hours, according to John Humphreys, Citrix's senior director of product marketing. The product isn't meant as a data backup or continuous data protection utility, he said.

Koelewyn sees this as a step closer to what VMware offers with its Data Recovery utility. Scheduling frequent snapshots could ease operational restores and offer "easier GUI-driven DR" for XenServer, he said. But this feature requires a Platinum license -- "free-version people are 'SOL,'" Koelewyn said.

Koelewyn said another new feature that could be of interest is HA restart priority, which allows users to instruct the system which virtual machines to restart first and in what order, should a failure require a reboot. "If something like that happened in an HA environment we'd have bigger fish to fry, but the ability to set it to start the most mission-critical machines first is interesting."

Details on the new self-service portal are still scarce. It's still unclear whether the self-service portal is an apples-to-apples equivalent to VMware's vCloud Director, Gartner's Wolf said, although XenServer has made increasing inroads in the cloud market, where self-service portals are becoming the norm. "We're seeing more uptake of XenServer at service providers-- cracking the enterprise data center has been slower for them -- but [Citrix has] been doing a decent job of chipping away and gaining market share over the past 12 months."

Koelewyn said the new Web-based self-service portal isn't of interest in his shop, which has about 50 vSphere and XenServer virtual machines spread over 16 physical hosts. "It seems like it could be a logistical nightmare to test each VM, add it to XenCenter and keep track of all users -- it might be better for larger IT shops."

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com.

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