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Comparing VMware ESX, VMware Server, Microsoft Virtual Server, Xen and XenEnterprise: Admin features

There is no black-and-white answer to the question of which server virtualization platform to choose. If someone tells you there is, he's probably wearing a salesman's hat. I don't wear that hat, so I'll try to help you make an informed decision with some platform comparisons.

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In this series

  - Choosing the right server virtualization solution part one, introduction
  - Choosing the right server virtualization solution part two, technical specifications
  - Choosing the right server virtualization solution part three, management
  - Choosing the right server virtualization solution part four, additional features

At the time of this writing, there are five server virtualization solutions: VMware ESX Server 2.5.3, VMware Server, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, Xen 3.0 and XenEnterprise. Let's start with a brief introduction to these products:

  • VMware ESX Server 2.5.3 is the current industry leader when it comes to server virtualization. It has a steep entry cost, but it is well supported by the vendor and third parties, and it works with fantastic results straight out of the box.
  • VMware Server is a free, stripped-down version of ESX, with the primary difference being that it requires an existing host operating system (OS) to run. For a complete list of differences between VMware ESX Server 2.5.3 and VMware Server, see http://www.vmware.com/products/server_comp.html.
  • Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 is geared towards Windows server virtualization, but Microsoft recently announced support for Linux guests as well. Although it is many times overlooked, do not ignore Microsoft when it believes in a technology.
  • Xen 3.0 is the current version of the Xen virtual machine monitor (VMM). It is open source and is rapidly being adopted by the heavyweights in the industry, such as IBM, HP, Intel, Red Hat, AMD and Novell, as the choice technology for server virtualization.
  • XenEnterprise springs forth from the company XenSource, founded by the creators of Xen. XenEnterprise is a packaged version of the Xen software and will provide a similar vertical virtualization solution to VMware's ESX Server.

Criteria

In this four-part tip, I will first describe the criteria for evaluation and evaluate the options in terms of administrative features. In part two, I will discuss technical specifications and support. Part three will go over management and high availability. Finally, part four will compare the options in terms of extra features and give a summary of the evaluation. (These criteria borrow heavily from the VMware server product comparison chart.)

Administrative

Management

  • Cost
  • Open source
  • Service Level Agreement (SLA) enforcement (service level guarantees)
  • Web-based server management
  • Remote VM console
  • Scripting and API support
  • Template support

Technical specifications

High availability

  • Host / control OS
  • CPU support
  • System RAM support
  • Hardware compatibility
  • Virtual SMP support
  • VMs per CPU core
  • Virtualization Mode
  • NIC teaming
  • VM clustering
  • Storage area network (SAN) connectivity
  • Host VM migration capability

Support

Additional features

  • Vendor support
  • Community support
  • Third-party support (consulting and development)
  • Available physical-to-virtual (P2V) solution
  • Integrated monitoring solution
  • Integrated backup solution

Processor
All the comparisons assume that VMM is running on an Intel processor that supports Intel Virtualization Technology (VT-i, VT-x).

Host / control OSs
When a host or control OS is required, the following will be used:

VMM

Host OS

VMware Server

  • Windows Server 2003 R2, Datacenter Edition x64
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux Version 4
Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2
  • Windows Server 2003 R2, Datacenter Edition x64
Xen 3.0
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux Version 4

XenEnterprise

  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux Version 4

Sources
My information for the following comparisons is derived from the material I found online about the products, by reading white papers and other related documents, talking with VMware engineer Michael Wilson, and a phone conversation with Simon Crosby, CTO of XenSource, on 2006/5/10.

Administrative

Read on to learn how the major options compare in terms of administrative features.

Cost
I will not be addressing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), only the monetary cost of the product itself.


Standard Cost With Educational Discount

VMware ESX Server 2.5.3 Virtual Infrastructure Node (VIN)
(includes SMP and VMotion agents)

$5,000 $2,835.00
Grepped from known purchase order

VMware Server

Free

-

Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2

Free

-

Xen 3.0

Free

-

XenEnterprise

Priced for the volume market
Per conversation with Simon Crosby, XenSource CTO

-

With three of the products being given away, ESX and XenEnterprise better offer some key features to be worth their price points.

Winner(s): VMware Server, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, Xen 3.0

Loser(s): VMware ESX Server 2.5.3, XenEnterprise

Open source
This section evaluates whether or not the VMM is open source software.


Open source

VMware ESX Server 2.5.3

No

VMware Server

No

Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2

No

Xen 3.0

Yes

XenEnterprise

Yes

Xen 3.0 and XenEnterprise are the only VMMs in this comparison that are open source, a huge benefit to those who wish to better understand and modify VMMs. This also means that investors in virtualization do not have to worry about a vendor going out of business and taking their source code with them. (There are ways to obtain source code from VMware, but it is still not open source.) I do not necessarily believe that software immediately gets a black mark for not being open source, so the closed-source solutions do not lose points, but Xen does gain them.

Winner(s): Xen 3.0, XenEnterprise

Loser(s): --

Service level guarantees
Service level guarantees ensure defined allocations of VM resources such as CPU, memory, disk and network.


Service level guarantees

VMware ESX Server 2.5.3

Yes

VMware Server

No

Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2

No evidence to support or deny

Xen 3.0

Yes

XenEnterprise

Yes

All the solutions offer service level guarantees with the exception of VMware Server and Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2. While they may not seem like a big deal, service level guarantees help you enforce Service Level Agreements (SLA). Service level guarantees are a crucial feature of any virtualization solution.

Winner(s): VMware ESX Server 2.5.3, Xen 3.0, XenEnterprise

Loser(s): VMware Server, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2

Click here to read part two, which discusses technical specifications and support.

Andrew Kutz has been professionally involved in the technology sector for 11 years. For the last six of them he has worked with the latest technologies while employed by the University of Texas at Austin. He started his own consulting firm and development house,

l o s t c r e a t i o n s
. He is also a founding member of the Austin VMware Users' Group (VMUG). His current pet development project is Sudo for Windows.

This was first published in May 2006

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