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VMware to spill the vSphere beans on April 21

VMware users who have seen the upcoming version say there's a lot to look forward to.

Mark your calendars. VMware will launch the next generation of its virtualization platform on April 21, at an event at its Palo Alto headquarters, flanked by partners Cisco and Intel.

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With the launch, VMware users and partners are hopeful that the company will put an end to months of speculation and hyperbole about everything from what the product is, what it means, even what to call it. Will it be vSphere? VMware Infrastructure (VI4)? ESX 4?

VMware's upcoming version
Over the past few months, VMware has provided details on its next-generation platform. At VMworld Europe in February, VMware presenters showcased many upcoming products and features. And given the trickle of blog posts about the upcoming version, the company has apparently tacitly lifted the NDA under which many bloggers operated.

VMware's new storage, networking and high-availability features will be a big draw.

So here are some things we know. The hypervisor itself will be 64-bit, will provide support for up to 256 GB of RAM per guest and eight-way virtual symmetric multiprocessing, or SMP. On the management side, it will be possible to cluster the vCenter servers, and users will be able to create and provision virtual machines using new host profiles and guest templates.

On the storage side, vSphere will feature a new pluggable storage architecture that allows the environment to directly leverage storage arrays' native features, and integrate storage management directly into the vCenter client. vCenter will also provide better visibility into storage consumption, will support thin-provisioned disks, and include a graphical user interface for Storage VMotion.

Another big area of improvement will be networking, thanks to the new distributed virtual switch, and Cisco's proprietary Nexus 1000V implementation thereof. With a distributed virtual switch, administrators can set up host and VM networks once rather than having to set them up on each host in a cluster.

In addition to core ESX and vCenter products, VMware is also expected to launch several new ancillary products, including the long-awaited VMware Fault Tolerance, and AppSpeed for performance management of applications running within a virtual machine. VMware is also expected to enable the VMsafe application programming interfaces that will let security vendors knit their products more tightly with ESX.

What users want
In talking with VMware users, it's hard to nail down any one feature that stands out from the rest. Clearly though, new storage, networking and high-availability features will be a big draw.

Terry Baker, technical infrastructure administrator at a county government in the Southeast, looks forward to the enhanced storage multipathing that VI4's pluggable storage architecture will enable. Currently, VMware offers very limited support for storage area network (SAN) multipathing. But in the next version, the pluggable storage modules will enable SAN vendors to supply their own multipathing software. Thus, as an EMC customer, Baker's shop will be able to implement EMC's PowerPath multipathing software. "That's something a lot of us have been waiting on," he said.

Meanwhile, the new distributed virtual switch promises to be a huge time saver, said Bob Plankers, a VMware administrator at the University of Wisconsin ----Madison. "Some weeks I spend many hours configuring switches," he said. "And I only have 12 servers," Plankers added. "I can't even imagine what it would be like if I had hundreds of servers."

VMware Fault Tolerance is the one feature Tom Becchetti, senior infrastructure engineer at a Fortune 1000 company, most anticipates. Fault Tolerance, according to Becchetti, will enable his group to offer an entirely new class of service to users. "I've already virtualized some applications that I otherwise wouldn't have virtualized to get them ready for this feature," he said. Specifically, Becchetti expects to use Fault Tolerance with an upcoming single sign-on application that will affect 3,000 to 4,000 core users at the company.

Specific features aside, the next release feels much more polished and is easier to use, said University of Wisconsin's Plankers. For example, Plankers likes the new host profiles feature, which removes the need for the custom scripts he's developed over the years, and new vCenter views that clearly show storage consumption. "They've really cleaned a lot of things up," he said.

Roadmap lost in translation
But for all their enthusiasm, a lot of VMware users still know next to nothing about the upcoming release, said one VMware partner, a consulting engineer. "Maybe it's just our customer base or our sales force, but I'm not sure they even know it's coming," he said, requesting anonymity.

The partner faulted VMware's marketing for that ignorance. Starting at the most recent VMworld conference, the company focused on relatively abstract concepts such as its Virtual Datacenter Operating System (VDC-OS) and the private cloud, which the partner believes was a mistake.

"That approach has lost the sales rep and glazed over the IT director. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think VMware should have started with "our next version of ESX does this" and then worked up to "cloud infrastructure, [Software as a Service, Infrastructure as a Service] enablers."

As a result, it's unclear to him how excited most VMware customers are about vSphere. "Consulting engineers like me are excited about all the new features and improvements," rank-and-file VMware users -- less so. As a result, "it's hard for me to predict how widely adopted the official release of the next version will be."

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

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