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Symantec clusters VMware vCenter for high availability

Most VMware shops opt for lesser degrees of high availability than that offered by Symantec's Veritas Cluster Server (VCS), but the new VCS agent for vCenter could appeal to large enterprises.

Enterprise IT shops that use VMware Infrastructure and Symantec's Veritas Cluster Server (VCS) high-availability software will be interested to know that Symantec has now promised collaborative support and deeper integration between the two products, including a version of VCS that protects VMware vCenter, the recently renamed VirtualCenter management console from downtime. VCS provides a deeper level of high-availability protection than most VMware shops are accustomed to, prompting questions about how broadly it will be adopted.

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"What we're seeing is a slow but continued move [of VMware] into production and mission-critical environments," said Jason Nadeau, Symantec's director of product management for the VCS product line. "VMware is a very important platform for our customers, and we're working very hard to enable them to deploy mission-critical apps with confidence on the VMware platform."

Both companies' participation in the Technical Support Alliance Network will facilitate collaborative support for joint Symantec and VMware customers. With that in place, "if you call in to one company with problems that involve software from different vendors, you can get a coordinated response," Nadeau said, including the graceful hand-off of trouble tickets after the originating company "has done its due diligence."

Tighter integration between VCS and the VMware platform doesn't involve new features per se. "We've been supporting VMotion on VCS since its initial release," Nadeau said. "This is really about making sure that there aren't any corner cases and making it better."

A version of Veritas Cluster Server for vCenter, however, is a new addition to the list of applications VCS protects, which includes Oracle, IBM WebSphere, Apache, and Microsoft Exchange, to name a few. By monitoring the vCenter application, VCS can gracefully fail it over to a standby instance, protecting it from unplanned downtime. The starting price for VMware VCS for Windows is $2,395 per CPU.

Symantec is not the first vendor to cluster vCenter. Others include SteelEye Technology and the Neverfail Group with its LifeKeeper for Windows and NeverFail for VirtualCenter products, respectively.

VMware HA vs. VMware Cluster Server
Still, the vast majority of VMware administrators opt for lesser degrees of protection for their vCenter instances.For instance, Bob Plankers, a systems administrator at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, does not use clustering to protect vCenter. Instead, "Our protection scheme for VirtualCenter involves replication of the VC database to another host and periodic synchronization of the local files on the VC server to the backup server," he wrote in an email. "If we do have an outage, we fire up the backup VC server, and away we go."

Alternately, an increasing number of VMware shops now use VMware's own built-in high-availability software to protect vCenter. By running vCenter in a virtual machine (VM), it can be re-started in case of a node failure with VMware High Availability (HA). While this approach was once frowned upon, it's now supported by VMware .

Using VMware HA to protect vCenter has a lot of benefits over using a clustering technology like Microsoft Cluster Services (MSCS) wrote VMware administrator and blogger Jason Boche. For one, "you probably already have a VI cluster in your environment you can leverage. Hit the ground running without spending the time to set up MSCS." For another, "Removing MSCS removes a third-party infrastructure complexity and dependency, which requires an advanced skill set to support."

Not surprisingly, vendors like Symantec don't support this approach. "We wouldn't recommend that," said Nadeau. "Because vCenter is such a critical component of your infrastructure, you would want to keep it separate." Also, there's a limit to the availability you get from VMware HA, said Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf. Ha recognizes only extreme soft failures such as a blue screen or hanged kernel. "Other than that, [VMware] HA doesn't tell you anything." A product like VCS, meanwhile, has visibility into the application layer, and can make "more intelligent decisions" based on application performance and process characteristics, he said.

To a large extent, the decision whether to cluster vCenter depends on VMware administrators' background, said Jean Bozman, the research vice president for the enterprise platforms group at IDC. In discussions with attendees at this fall's VMworld, Bozman noted two distinct types of VMware users: "top down, and bottom up," she said. "Top down" users tend to come from an enterprise IT background and have extensive knowledge of Unix and high-availability software. "Bottom up" VMware users, on the other hand, began using VMware a long time ago as an ad hoc solution, trying to maximize the effectiveness of the x86 platform, and may be comfortable with less bulletproof HA solutions. "I'm not saying that one is better than the other -- just that both groups appear to exist." Meanwhile, Burton Group's Wolf hopes Symantec's foray into protecting vCenter presages better things to come.

"The bigger story here is the move away from looking at a VM as a black box and looking inside it," Wolf said.

When VMware acquired B-Hive -- whose Conductor application performance-monitoring software it will integrate in to VMware Distribted Resource Scheduler (DRS) -- started down this road. The availability of tools like Symantec VCS, meanwhile, could give enterprise IT users the availability they need to confidently move "tier-one and tier-two" applications off dedicated boxes and into the virtual realm, Wolf said. This year, look for that to happen in earnest, he said, as systems based on Intel's Nehalem and AMD-V chips with Rapid Virtualization Indexing (RVI) begin to ship.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director. And check out our Server Virtualization Blog.

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