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VMware launches vSphere 4

VMware has launched vSphere 4, the successor to VI3. With much-anticipated features such as VMware Fault Tolerance, beta users look forward to the new release.

VMware lifted the Cone of Silence around its next-generation vSphere 4 virtualization platform today, providing a definitive list of the many features and enhancements to its core hypervisor and management tools.

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The company also unveiled new pricing and packaging for vSphere 4, bringing the total number of vSphere editions to five, up from three. VMware also described introductory promotions to prompt existing customers to move quickly to the new version, which is slated to be generally available this quarter.

The next ESX
At its core, vSphere 4 still relies on the ESX hypervisor, which has been rewritten to run natively on 64-bit processors (and does not run on 32-bit processors). Along with this change, ESX doubles the number of virtual CPUs that can be assigned to a virtual machine (VM) to eight and quadruples the amount of RAM to 256 GB, increases network throughput from 9 Gbps to 40 Gbps, and more than doubles the IOPS from 100,000 to more than 200,000. A single ESX host can then be joined into a cluster of up to 32 nodes, supporting 4,096 processing cores, 32 TB of RAM, and 3 million IOPS, the company claimed.

Many of these performance increases come by way of integration with new, faster Intel Xeon 5500 "Nehalem" chips, said Chris Wolf. VSphere takes advantage of Nehalem's, expanded memory access and virtualization extensions.

In practical terms, enhanced performance makes it possible for VMware shops to either increase their consolidation ratios or to virtualize more demanding applications than was previously possible, Wolf said.

We've been waiting for [VMware Fault Tolerance] since it was first announced.
Steve Bonney,
VP of business developmentBayScribe

In addition, vSphere 4 makes it easier for administrators to manipulate underlying compute resources. With this version, vCPU and RAM can be dynamically added or removed from a virtual machine without requiring a reboot. Similarly, ESX now supports hot-add of devices such networking interface cards, also without a reboot.

On the storage side, vSphere 4 introduces the concept of thin provisioning, which allows administrators to logically overallocate storage to a virtual disk while managing its consumption. The new Volume Grow feature allows hot-extend of virtual disks. A pluggable storage architecture enables storage vendors to directly integrate management of their arrays from within VMware's vCenter management console and allows administrators to take advantage of an array's native storage software such as multipathing and snapshots. Finally, with vSphere 4, Storage VMotion moves from experimental to fully supported.

For Larry Miller, a senior systems engineer at Southwestern Energy Co. in Houston, Texas, thin provisioning will help his company save "a small fortune" in expensive disk storage. Without it, VMware administrators "do a balancing act. You ask yourself, 'Do I give the customer what they're asking for or what they really need?'" Miller said. With thin provisioning of virtual disks, "you can give [the customer] what they ask for, but the system won't actually commit it until it's used."

VSphere 4's major networking enhancement is the long-awaited vNetwork Distributed Switch, which allows administrators to configure a single virtual switch for an entire cluster rather than for each ESX host. In addition, VMware partner Cisco Systems Inc. will use the vNetwork Distributed Switch as the basis of its Nexus 1000V soft switch, which network administrators can use to configure the distributed virtual switch from a familiar Cisco interface, and provides visibility of intra-VM traffic to Cisco's monitoring software.

Security and availability
VSphere 4 is the first VMware platform to support its VMsafe application programming interfaces (APIs), through which VMware exposes network and host events for security partners to use within new security products. For instance, Reflex Systems Inc. uses the VMsafe API as the basis of its new vTrust product, also announced today, which uses the network-level traffic exposed through the API as the basis of its policy-based enforcement decisions.

VSphere 4 also includes support for vShield Zones, a VMotion-aware firewall service that network administrators can use to segregate virtual machines on logically separate virtual networks.

On the availability front, the company has introduced VMware Data Protection, an entry-level backup solution that runs as a virtual appliance and is accessed from a vCenter plug-in. VMware Data Protection provides backup to disk of virtual machines' Virtual Machine Disk Format, or VMDK, files, with deduplication to reduce its footprint.

VSphere now also supports the previously experimental feature VMware Fault Tolerance. With it, in the case of hardware failure, administrators can provide zero downtime to individual virtual machines.

Fault Tolerance has proved to be one of users' most hotly anticipated vSphere features. "We've been waiting for it since it was first announced," said Steve Bonney, the vice president of business development at BayScribe, a provider of Software as a Service dictation software to healthcare providers. BayScribe will use VMware Fault Tolerance to protect a call-in dictation application so doctors won't have to call in again in the event of hardware failure.

The thing about Fault Tolerance is it's so easy to use, according to Ryan Makamson, a systems engineer at Washington State University's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "It's like popping a Tic Tac in your mouth. All you do is right-click over the VM, enable Fault Tolerance, and you're done. It's almost anti-climactic," he said. Makamson said he intends to protect run-of-the-mill applications such as DHCP with Fault Tolerance to avoid maintaining multiple copies.

In the absence of commercial clustering software, VMware Fault Tolerance "is a really good option" for protecting homegrown applications, said Burton Group's Wolf. But he warned that implementing Fault Tolerance can come at "a significant cost," resource-wise. At minimum, "you need to double your [compute] resources in order to make it work," he said.

Skipping a grade
Once ESX's sidekick, VMware vCenter Server is taking on an increasingly central role in VMware's stack, graduating from version 2.5 directly to 4, the same version level as vSphere. And over the coming year, vCenter will become home to numerous new ancillary products, including vCenter AppSpeed, CapacityIQ, ConfigControl, Orchestrator and Chargeback.

In the meantime, vCenter Server 4 benefits from an improved console and some key new features.

"I like the new performance-monitoring capabilities," said Southwestern Energy's Miller. "There's nothing new there, but in VI3, if you wanted to monitor CPU, or disk space or memory, you had to go to a separate page. Now it's all on a single page."

The new vCenter Server also adds a new host profiles feature, which administrators can use to set up ESX templates for subsequent rapid provisioning. It also introduces the notion of Linked Mode, with which users with multiple vCenter instances can manage their inventory from a single VI Client. That latter feature, in particular, is of particular importance to large enterprises and cloud providers, said Burton Group's Wolf.

The first "cloud OS"?
Speaking of clouds, VMware hopes that customers will view vSphere 4 as a legitimate first stab at a cloud operating system, said Jeff Byrne, a senior analyst at the Taneja Group. "At a high level, the key takeaway VMware wants IT decision makers to have is that vSphere 4 is a solid first step toward the realization of cloud computing."

But while customers are undeniably excited about vSphere as the successor to Virtual Infrastructure 3, it's unclear whether they've embraced VMware's cloud message yet.

Byrne thinks it's a matter of time. "Sure, there are lots of things VMware still needs to do in the areas of security, availability and federated cloud management," he said. "But I believe ultimately [vSphere 4] will be the key underlying technology that powers the cloud."

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

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