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VMware ESX 3.5 goes live with key new features

Existing ESX shops are expected to migrate quickly to the latest Virtual Infrastructure platform, thanks to new features like Storage VMotion and VMware Update Manager.

VMware Inc.'s ESX 3.5 era officially began today, with news of the offering's general availability and the introduction of hotly anticipated new features, such as Storage VMotion and VMware Update Manager.

For more on VMware ESX Server 3.5:
VMware overhauls ESX hypervisor

VMware's new Infrastructure 3 offers features-plus

VMware's new VI3 rejiggers bundles and pricing

The fundamentals of the 3.5 release remain the same as they were in October, when Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. officially announced the ESX 3.5 beta. In addition to the ESX 3.5 hypervisor, also available are its embedded cousin ESX Server 3i, VirtualCenter 2.5, and a plethora of new features for the Virtual Infrastructure 3 (VI3) suite. In addition, VMware has tweaked the naming, contents and pricing of its three Virtual Infrastructure editions.

Users pine for Storage VMotion, Update Manager
In an informal poll of existing ESX 3.x users, Storage VMotion and Update Manager consistently made the list of ESX 3.5 features greatly anticipated by IT managers. Mike Laverick, a freelance VMware certified instructor and the voice of the RTFM Education blog, summed up Storage VMotion's appeal in an email. "Storage VMotion is [a] beacon towards the future," Laverick wrote. "No downtimes on the VM [virtual machine] for VMware operations."

In our complicated environment of multi-vendor, multi-patching tools and compliance something like VMware Update is a godsend.
Mike Laverick,
RTFM Education

With it, Laverick continued, users can move VMs between Virtual Machine File System (VMFS) volumes without taking the VM offline -- "helpful to those people provisioning new storage devices as the storage nears the end of its life and warranty." In addition, "it will allow VMware folks to avoid using 'vmware extents' (which have never been terrifically popular in the Community) when they run out of space in a volume and opt for provisioning new LUNs [logical unit numbers], and move the VMs to their new space."

Meanwhile, VMware Update Manager automates patching of ESX Server hosts and select Linux and Windows virtual machines. It automates snapshot creation before a VM is updated, enabling easier rollback, and works with both online and offline VMs.

Today, patching of ESX hosts leaves something to be desired, said Laverick. "Users complain greatly about VMware['s] existing patch management solution (esxupdate) not least because it requires downloading and extracting packages manually, and developing perl scripts to apply these patches consistently and in date order." In contrast, Laverick calls VMware Update Manager a "very easy point & click/set-and-forget solution that integrates neatly with existing features of [Distributed Resource Scheduler, or DRS]." By integrating with DRS, VMware Update Manager can orchestrate the entire patch process, from "the removal of all the VMs from an ESX host (using VMotion), to patching, rebooting, and finally exiting maintenance mode."

"In our complicated environment of multi-vendor, multi-patching tools and compliance something like VMware Update is a godsend," Laverick said.

ESX 3.5 migration plans
As with most enterprise software, many VMware shops say they will hold off on installing ESX 3.5 until a proven version is in the marketplace or until the need arises. At the same time, many existing VMware ESX 3.x shops plan to begin migrating to 3.5 sooner rather than later.

"We are somewhat conservative here," wrote Adam Baum, IT architect for the city of Mesa, Arizona, in an email. "I'll roll it out into our lab probably the first month of availability. If it all goes well, it'll roll into development and then production. Figure three months or so. If it seems to be a minor upgrade with no major side affects [sic], it may go faster."

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Compared with the migration between ESX 2.5 and ESX 3.0, "the migration is going to be a piece of cake," said Larry Miller, a systems engineer at Southwestern Energy Co., a natural gas drilling company in Houston Texas. That's because version 3.0 also introduced a new version of the VMFS file system, requiring an upgrade to the file system; ESX 3.5 introduces no such radical changes.

As a beta tester, Miller expects to install 3.5 on any new production servers immediately and then begin a phased migration for the remainder of his servers starting in the first quarter of 2008, he said. Southwestern Energy is also looking forward to such features as Distributed Power Management (DPM) and Guided Consolidation.

VMware DPM fuels the current hype surrounding green computing, Miller said, by consolidating virtual machines onto the fewest possible number of hosts, and powering down the rest. That said, Southwestern Energy hasn't been given any directive from above about going green, Miller said. "We just like it because it's cool."

But Miller expects Guided Consolidation to be useful going forward as the firm continues to virtualize more of its physical boxes. Based on VMware Capacity Planner and linked in to VMware Converter, the company's physical-to-virtual (P2V) migration tool, Guided Consolidation offers a wizard-based, free glimpse into what servers are good candidates to be virtualized. However, Miller cautioned users that it only takes a point-in-time snapshot of an environment. "If you run it at the wrong point in time, like during a backup, it might give you the wrong result," he said.

Bob Plankers, a system administrator and author of The Lone Sysadmin blog is also awaiting ESX 3.5 support for for Intel FlexMigration, a feature on VT-enabled chips that allows for better VMotion interoperability between servers running different processor families. "Our VMware clusters are currently getting a little full, so we'd like to expand them using servers based on Intel's 5400 and 7300-series of CPUs," he wrote in an email.

Still early days
But some VMware observers say most of the new features will be lost on the vast majority of IT shops exploring virtualization. Tom Dugan, the chief technology officer at Recovery Networks and president of the Philadelphia VMware Users Group, said that new features in ESX are of interest to those "inside the virtual world," but that outside this bubble, most IT shops "barely have their toe in virtualization. It's not nearly as accepted as the VMware guys would have you believe."

Case in point: At a recent user group meeting, Dugan asked an audience of 90 or so users how many were VMware users. All but three raised their hands. He then asked how many actively use VMware in production, and only three raised their hand.

"Sure, VMware is the 800-pound gorilla, but they're an 800-pound gorilla on a 5-billion-acre continent," Dugan said. "There's still a large part of the market that they're not getting to."

Finally, VMware's Web site offers an up-to-date list of the features available in each VMware edition. But contrary to the suggestion of the second footnote ("These products will be available after ESX Server 3.5 and VirtualCenter 2.5 are generally available"), Storage VMotion and Update Manager are in fact included as part of this release, said John Gilmartin, a VMware senior manager, product marketing. The word after was simply "a poor choice in wording" and should be read as meaning when, he explained.

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

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