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Citrix XenServer 5.5 gains parity with VMware

Citrix Systems' bare-metal hypervisor, XenServer 5.5, has gained parity with VMware on key management and security fronts, says virtualization expert Rick Vanover.

Welcome to this podcast on the new features and Citrix Systems' XenServer 5.5. I'm site editor Colin Steele and our guest today is Rick Vanover, a systems administrator and virtualization expert.

Colin Steele: Thanks for joining us, Rick.

Rick Vanover: Thanks Colin. Glad to be here.

C.S.: Rick, Citrix recently released version 5.5 of XenServer and XenCenter. What are some of the most important new features?

R.V.: Well, above everything else, the big takeaway with this version is that we now have Active Directory, integrated security for XenServer and the associated configuration that goes with it. That's huge because by all accounts a lot of organizations put up a stop sign and said, "It's impossible to manage in that regard." So myself and others are very excited for that from a competitive standpoint and we'll touch on that in a little bit later. But more than anything the server pools that go along with the XenServer implementation now can be managed, and role basic administration and all those good things can start to run in and, comparatively, that's where the other products are. So that's a big step for XenServer. Another feature that is something people are really excited for and is a big enabler, especially for larger implementations, is the shared storage repository or shared SR functionality. It's been expanded to include some other storage types, which is a big step forward for a lot of organizations. XenServer, previously, was very focused on NFS [Network File System] and local storage and they've really put all the parallel features up with Fibre Channel and iSCSI as well. So, for a lot of enterprises and larger installations, that's really important for them also.

C.S.: VMware, Microsoft and Citrix all offer a free type-one hypervisor. How does XenServer compare?

R.V.: Well, right now, it's right in line; definitely for the Active Directory integration. You know, comparatively, Microsoft's already there of course. But in the free space, Citrix is … it really leads the pack in a way, in my opinion, because it's got the strongest offering for a free solution. VMware's is pretty flat, honestly, it's a bare-metal hypervisor, and it's a pretty good one, I'm not going to doubt that, but the management opportunities are really limited.

Citrix, on the other hand, has of course the migration, the conversions, shared storage repository that's kind of like a new feature, and a lot of that stuff exists on the other platforms but for XenServer the whole package is pretty good. And Citrix wants to make that pretty well known and they like the little comparative chart they put up on their website of different features such as, templating which is a really important feature for virtual machines from an admistrator's standpoint for quick deployment. That's included free with XenServer 5.5. So, little things like that all add up to a pretty strong offering, comparatively, of course, they're aiming at VMware for the … for all spaces I would assume. But in the case of free offerings, Citrix has a very, very strong offering for their type one hypervisor and management stack.

C.S.: What about using mixed virtualization platforms like VMware and Citrix together? Can you talk a little bit about the planning that has to go into that?

R.V.: It's an opportunity for some people, you know, you could take this comparatively strong offering for the XenServer's free offering and put a select tier of virtualization in that container, if you will: development test, proof of concept, not so much on the virtualization side, but on the workload side. You know if I have certain virtual machines it might not really be worth having, uh, the VMware HA, VMware DRS [Distributed Resource Scheduler] licensing cost. Those associated costs for those types of workloads. With XenServer, you can set up an environment that can run all of those virtual machines probably just as well and you will not have to absorb that licensing cost from the management stack.

Now, of course, in your production environment it definitely makes more sense to absorb that cost, to provision those workloads in a protected and fully managed fashion. But a lot of people might be thinking, "Well, you know, of course, money's tight, I have needs to stand up additional workloads -- maybe a mixed platform is good." Now, what you need to do or think about to protect yourself from issues down the road is, "Well, how do I move workloads between?" Yeah, I could become a master of, uh, AVI conversions but you might want to focus … think about focusing more on the application, you know. A conversion is a great tool, but it's always cleaner to rebuild. So if you could provision virtual machines instead of frequently converting from XenServer to ESXi, for example if you're going from a testing development stage to a live production stage, you know, you might want to think about, "Let's rebuild the AB,' you know, "Well, let's work on our templates in both environments and provision the application as we would a new build to transition between rather than always converting and that would go along with drivers just like you would a physical-to-virtual conversation as well.

One comment further on that is … this is kind of targeted for the small and medium, don't-have-any-money-type of installations, you know, because if you're talking about larger installations. Then there are the full-blown lab management products that can work above all these hypervisors as well. But, you know, if we're focusing on starting with the free offerings and then how do we work with revenue solutions and then we might want to think about mixing platforms where it makes sense. And those are some of the thoughts that go along [for] organizations that might be thinking about a different tier of virtualization on a different platform.

C.S.: On a similar note, what should admins consider before combining XenServer with other products for additional management or security features like high availability?

R.V.: Well, the good news is, is that it's gotten a lot easier from just recently. Citrix XenServer's Platinum additional support is certified as enterprise production-ready by Burton Group. So that's a big step forward because that was only held by VMware to this point. So … and there's a lot that goes into that, mainly their support requirements, their support availability I should say on Citrix's side and the functionality -- mainly the Active Directory and integrated security. All those things have been, channeled forward to the product and the support offering that really make it ready to go for a lot of people if you're going the revenue route that include HA [high availability]and other things but more than anything, the lifecycle goes into that too. So there's a lifecycle definition. Really, all the formal things that we've taken for granted in the VMware world are now applicable to Citrix's as well. So recently there's been a real big push around 5.5 to kind of say, "Hey, Citrix is, you know, on par with the functionality with the competition."

C.S.: How does Xen Center fit into the architecture for XenServer implementations?

R.V.: Well, the big thing is the architecture is different. I mention that, you know, we frequently start with VMware a lot but, you know, with Citrix it's a little bit of a different game. In the free space for the free offering the big thing, of course, is the Active Directory-integrated security available and that might not work how we always think. OK, so if I can figure Active Directory-integrated security in a VMware environment with a revenue solution, you know, it just works. And I do my thing and add groups, users in, and I'm good. On Citrix's offering, XenServer actually has a computer account and Active Directory. OK, so that's one of those differences that are fundamental because that starts from the management architecture there's no central management server for the free server they're offering. Now, when we introduce some of the other new features like workload balancing, there is an actual server that interacts with the servers, it's kind of like a management server but that focuses more on placement, migrations, HA [high availability] features and stuff like that. So there's architectural difference that everybody would want to take the time to go through, you know, understand the differences if you're coming from a different platform.

C.S.: And finally, Rick, what can you tell us about how easy it is to get started with and use XenServer?

R.V.: Well, it's actually very easy to download and install. And I'm a Windows guy -- I'm not a Linux guy, OK -- so XenServer, you know, based on a Linux-type platform that doesn't impede us at all. Just like VMware has a pretty easy install, so does Citrix's XenServer product. Likewise the management interface is very straightforward, I mean it's different, but it's not very difficult at all to set up, it's easier than Microsoft offering so, you know, the … the Windows camp of the world doesn't need to be intimidated by that. You could really just plug it in and get going quite easily.

C.S.: Rick Vanover, systems administrator and virtualization expert, thanks for joining us.

R.V.: Thank you, Colin.

C.S.: And thank you for listening to this podcast.

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