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Users wrestle with virtualizing Tier 1 applications

While VMware's head is in the clouds, enterprise users are battling technical and organizational challenges to adding high-end apps to server virtualization environments.

SAN FRANCISCO -- While VMware touted its new vCloud Director this week, enterprise IT pros said they have a more down-to-earth goal in mind: virtualizing tier 1 applications such as Oracle and SQL Server databases and Exchange Server email.

In past years, such applications weren't even considered candidates for virtualization, but having tackled less critical applications, users look to use server virtualization to add portability, automation, and easier disaster recovery to more heavy-duty application environments, as well.

Technical challenges
Jesse Pryor, systems administration manager for a financial institution, said it may take years, but he's hoping to virtualize Oracle databases eventually for portability, high availability and easier hardware updates.

"You could buy a new server that's two to three times as powerful and port it seamlessly without downtime," he said. For now, however, Pryor said he's not able to virtualize Oracle databases which require more than the eight virtual CPUs that can be allocated using vSphere.

Joel Mora, a data center consultant for General Datatech LP, said he's seen similar objections raised to virtualizing SQL Server databases, but in some cases his clients have found that less multithreading in a server virtualization environment actually boosted database performance. One client in particular was hesitant to virtualize a SQL farm that was at 80 percent resource utilization with as many cores and as much memory as they could give it.

VMware has almost made it too easy [to virtualize lower-end applications.]


Brandon Halte,
Director of managed servicesVMware VAR Solutions II

"The mentality is, the more resources the faster the engine, but it's not necessarily true," Mora said. "The way certain databases are written, the more threading they have to do, the more communication there has to be between multiple cores, which takes up resources. "With fewer cores after virtualizing on VMware, resource utilization was down to 30%.

Still, there are more technical issues than processors and performance to worry about with mission-critical workloads. Data protection and high availability are among these other priorities. In physical environments, the most critical transactional applications often run in tightly coupled clusters joined by synchronous replication. However, VMware's equivalent utility, Fault Tolerance (FT), which keeps virtual machines in lockstep with one another, runs directly counter to the requirement of multiprocessor performance -- VMware FT is not currently compatible with VMware's symmetric multiprocessing (vSMP).

According to Eric Siebert, senior systems administrator for Boston Market, who spoke at a virtualization 'deep-dive' session at VMworld 2010 Wednesday morning, the lack of vSMP support in VMware FT environments "is a big show-stopper…applications that require FT typically use multiple CPUs."

FT also isn't compatible at this point with snapshots, N_Port ID virtualization (NPIV), paravirtualized SCSI drivers (pvSCSI), raw device mapping (RDM) in physical mode, hot-plug resource allocation, IPv6 and Storage VMotion, according to Siebert's presentation. Like vSMP, the NPIV, pvSCSI, and RDM features are designed to improve resource utilization and performance for more demanding apps.

Organizational challenges
Technical hurdles have a tendency to break down with time, but users say organizational and cultural changes would have to take place before mission-critical workloads can be virtualized.

"I'm just not there yet trust-wise," said Byron Bruce, an IT manager with a food company in the Midwest. "We have our own internal capability to manage [these applications] on familiar platforms in a crisis, and we don't have to rely wholly on a technology vendor to bring us that expertise."

Brandon Halte, director of managed services for VMware VAR Solutions II, said that in his experience with clients, IT management's relationship to the application groups needed to support virtualization of tier 1 applications is critical. "It matters who the DBAs are reporting to -- a lot of times they report to an application group," Halte said. "If they all report to one person, there's a better chance of virtualizing."

Experts say little by little, that mentality is changing. Halte said he has one client, a hospital, which has virtualized its mission-critical applications for three years. But organizations are also often unprepared for the amount of planning necessary to achieve the same performance for databases and other intensive workloads on shared infrastructure.

"VMware has almost made it too easy" to virtualize lower-end applications, he said. "Companies don't go back and evaluate their I/O requirements before they put something into a virtualization environment with 20 other servers. When things go wrong, they think it's because of virtualization, but it could be something else."

Outlook for the future
During the VMworld opening keynote Tuesday morning, Rick Jackson, VMware's chief marketing officer, acknowledged that even as VMware moves to "Phase 3" of virtualization -- the cloud -- the average customer is still in "Phase 2", which he defined as the delivery of quality of service for mission-critical applications on virtual infrastructure.

Some users aren't convinced they'll ever get past that step. Tony Stauffer, a manager of end user services for an automotive manufacturer in the Midwest, said he's not sure his company will ever virtualize Oracle or Exchange. Stauffer said he might consider it for disaster recovery purposes, but even then would look for a way to do physical-to-virtual conversions on the fly, rather than virtualizing databases in production.

Solutions II's Halte said he thinks it will happen, but not necessarily under the aegis of VMware.

"I'm not a believer that everything should run on an x86 platform," he said. If this was the case, some of VMware's vision for automated data centers in the cloud wouldn't be available for those apps -- unless it began offering virtualization, or at least cloud management, for platforms other than x86.

"VMware could address this, but it depends on how hard they want to go after this market," Halte said. If not, "someone will come out with it."

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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