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VMware throws bone to enterprises, SMBs with vSphere 4.1

VMware added new features that appeal to large enterprises, and revamped licensing at the low end of its product line to appeal to SMBs, but users say their pain lies elsewhere.

VMware vSphere 4.1, released today, includes features that target large enterprise shops as well as new licensing designed to lure in elusive small businesses just getting started with virtualization. But observers at both ends of the spectrum say that the new features and licensing, while welcome, don't address challenges faced by their organizations in integrated management and high availability.

Updates for the enterprise -- I/O control and memory compression stand out
VMware Inc. has made updates called Storage and Network I/O Control (now the formal names for a feature previously known as I/O Resource Manager (IO-RM) and memory compression. The updates allow VMware administrators to set quality of service (QoS) priorities for guest machines in the event of network or storage I/O contention. Memory compression eliminates "white space" from shared memory pages, the better to avoid swaps to disk when deduplication through Transparent Page Sharing isn't enough.

Network I/O control "is huge for consolidated networks," said Jason Boche, a senior systems engineer for a global media service. In converged network environments, more traffic is going over fewer cables, making contention more likely.

Gartner Inc. analyst Chris Wolf also pointed out that Storage and Network I/O Control software will affect VMware's Dynamic Resource Scheduling (DRS) feature. "When DRS was looking to place a virtual machine before, it only considered the compute and memory available -- you could flood the I/O stream if you weren't careful."

While memory compression will be a boon if it works as advertised, users say they are holding off on embracing it fully until they see the true impact of its performance overhead (VMware officially estimates it at 2%) in production.

Still on the wish list: Comprehensive management tools
VSphere 4.1 also contains the official reissue of EMC's erstwhile Ionix IT management software offerings under the VMware brand; other than a VMware label, however, the products have not changed. Ionix and Storage and Network I/O Control are a start, said Robert Zelinka, director of infrastructure for TTX Co., an asset management company for rail car rentals in North America, but "I want a single pane of glass to manage my infrastructure."

Boche echoed that sentiment. "I work in a large environment with a couple thousand virtual machines, and we almost can't virtualize fast enough," he said. While VMware now claims an order of magnitude more of virtual machines can be supported per host with vSphere 4.1, Boche said its monitoring and reporting tools haven't caught up to those limits. "Not a lot of vendors in the virtualization space can provide scalability and customized tools that large users need," he said. He also evaluated VMware's CapacityIQ a few months ago, "and the canned reports are kind of neat, but you get what you get -- you can't easily customize it."

New enterprise licensing, according to the average number of VM instances per year in vSphere 4.1, make improvements to VMware's capacity planning and management tools even more important, said IDC analyst Gary Chen. "It's going to be hard for a lot of companies to predict what their requirements will be as a rolling 12-month average," he said. "VMware has to figure out how to get predictability with customers or it could be like overage charges with a cell phone company -- they could really start to upset a lot of people if they don't do it right."

VMotion for the masses
Among a multitude of updates included in VMware's vSphere 4.1 are tweaks to VMware's licensing at the low end of its product line, which it designed to appeal to the small and midsized business (SMB) market, where competition with Microsoft's Hyper-V is most intense. However, users say Microsoft's offering of live migration and high availability (HA) features for free still sets it apart for cost-conscious small shops.

With vSphere 4.1, VMware is making its VMotion live migration feature available at Essentials Plus and Standard licensing levels, where previously it was only available at Advanced and above. In an effort to entice SMB customers, it lowered the price of the entry-level Essentials license from $995 to $495, a promotional price VMware has offered for months that will now become permanent. Prices for Essentials Plus and Standard editions, meanwhile, are going up with the addition of VMotion support; Essentials Plus is going from $2,995 for three hosts up to $3,495, and Standard is going from $795 per processor to $995.

"I've always said that they need to focus on the SMB market more," said Eric Siebert, senior systems administrator for Boston Market Corp. Siebert manages about half a dozen hosts total, but uses an Enterprise Plus license for its advanced features, including HA. "You get what you pay for, so the cost is justified. But with Microsoft always competing based on how their products are cheaper, I think VMware made a good move."

Still, Siebert said he doesn't expect small shops, including his own, to drop licensing levels for cost savings. "I think [VMware] is going after the people that are using the free ESXi, and [will] get them into the paid version.… I've always thought that VMware was forced into giving away free ESXi because of Microsoft giving away their hypervisor. I don't think they ever wanted to do that."

While VMware has lowered the price of Essentials, the entry-level license does not include HA or live migration, two features that Microsoft's Hyper-V R2 offers for free. In order to get HA, users must purchase Essentials Plus, and with the licensing changes, the distance between those two editions is mounting.

Gabrie Van Zanten, principal consultant for Open Line, a VMware partner in the Netherlands, said he doen't often sell Essentials Plus licenses because users with three or more hosts usually upgrade to Advanced or higher to anticipate growth. Smaller customers often choose Essentials because "the Plus today only offers me [VMware Data Recovery] and HA, and those are features they don't want to pay that much for."

When talking with customers contemplating a switch to Hyper-V, Van Zanten said he usually makes the argument that VMware can host more guest machines per server, making up for the difference in up-front price. But, "I still think price is a big concern. People often only look at price, and Hyper-V is almost free.... When you do the TCO calculations, it might be cheaper to buy the bigger version [of the VMware license] but it's still money you have to spend."

The price increases for Standard and Essentials Plus "don't really hurt that bad," said Matt Liebowitz, a solutions architect for VMware enterprise partner Kraft & Kennedy Inc. But as a Microsoft Gold Partner as well, "HA is the feature that sells product," said Liebowitz.

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