VMware vSphere: Out of the Box and into the Clouds

Touted as a Cloud OS, vSphere enters the cloud computing fray with a bang.

As you’ve heard by now, VMware announced vSphere 4 last Tuesday. vSphere 4 is VMware’s Virtual Infrastructure latest incarnation and is a new contender in the cloud computing market. VMware has the majority of market share in the server virtualization marketplace but is a late arrival in the cloud computing space where Xen is master and KVM is making headway. Formerly known as VMware VI4, is vSphere just a name change or is it a game change?

Surprise! It’s both. And more.

VMware’s 800-pound Gorilla just packed on a few extra pounds with vSphere 4. But putting itself out into the market as a cloud-oriented contender is a bold move. The ultimate goal of vSphere 4 is to promote IT as a service (ItaaS). We all know that Cloud Computing promises speed, cost-savings, higher “up” times, scalability and high availability—so what is the VMware vSphere difference?

Software Mainframe

You might have heard this new technology (vSphere) referred to as a “software mainframe.” The term, used by Paul Maritz (VMware President and CEO) at VMworld Europe 2009, refers to VMware’s vision of building a giant computer made up of thousands of regular computers. The software mainframe, he says, helps translate what VMware hopes to accomplish with vSphere to older technologists.

The idea of a software mainframe is interesting but not really new—it’s simply an old idea repackaged as new and fresh. It doesn’t matter, though, since the idea is a good one. The idea of distributed computing assures that computing resources.

Fault Tolerance

If you need a single reason to upgrade to vSphere 4, this is it. This revision provides true virtual machine (VM) fault tolerance. It does so by running identical VMs in lockstep on separate host systems. To illustrate, let’s say that you have three VMware ESX host systems running VMs and one of those ESX systems fails. What happens to the VMs running on that physical host? Ordinarily, they would be out of commission until that system comes back online. However, with vSphere 4, your VMs never experience a corresponding outage—they all keep running as if all three hosts were up and available. This is not a VMotion. This is a true High Availability (HA) scenario and a major improvement for VMware Infrastructure.

This non-stop VM availability allows you to forget about nines (99.9%, 99.99%, 99.999%), when discussing uptimes and allows you, instead, to discuss zero downtime and zero data loss for your VMs and their services. The best part about this technology is, as if zero downtime weren’t enough, that there’s no specialized clustering hardware or configuration needed—everything you need is in vSphere.

VMware vSphere

  • Fault Tolerance
  • vNetwork Distributed Switch
  • vStorage Thin Provisioning
  • Storage VMotion
  • vShield Zones
  • New Licensing Model

vNetwork Distributed Switch

vNetwork Distributed Switch maintains network connectivity, security and enables the use of third party software switches (Cisco Nexus 1000V, for example). Using vSphere 4 and Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual switch technology, you can provide security and network configurations from a virtual machine-centered perspective. This technology also allows live migration while ensuring persistent network connectivity and security.

vStorage Thin Provisioning

This technology is the storage equivalent of memory ballooning where assigned resources are overcommitted for VM use. This concept no doubt has as many detractors as it has supporters. In support of this technology, you give your best estimate of space to each application with room for growth and no space is wasted if that growth never occurs. On the detractor side, in VMware’s own words, “Typically, storage provisioning is a manual process requiring careful planning and coordination by IT management, storage administrators, system administrators, and application administrators.” Careful planning and coordination by multiple departments is necessary to properly track and record changes made to infrastructure.

Storage VMotion

Storage VMotion provides you the ability to dynamically move virtual machine files without disrupting service. Only available in the vSphere Enterprise Plus Edition, Storage VMotion also gives you the opportunity to optimize and manage your storage more efficiently. Storage VMotion is one of the best features available for those of us who must constantly shift VMs around as storage landscape and needs change. Knowing that those middle-of-the-night maintenance windows are no longer necessary is, by itself, almost worth the price of the software.

vShield Zones

vShield Zones, much like vNetwork Distributed Switches, are clever and interesting but for larger networks, and the companies that support them, you’d be hard-pressed to find a CIO that would allow server-level network configurations. Most companies prefer a separation of duties. Having multiple network configurations, or the possibility of multiple configurations, adds a level of complexity that most aren’t willing to manage. Anyone who’s ever been involved in troubleshooting network and system problems would likely agree.

For smaller companies, vShield Zones allow network savvy systems administrators to make elegant and complex configurations without the high cost of analogous network hardware and a Network Engineer to manage it.

New Licensing Model

As a relief to many, VMware made significant changes to its licensing for vSphere 4. Especially refreshing is the decision to forego license text files in favor of the more industry standard 25-character string license keys. And the enlightened decision to no longer use a licensing server, removes much administrative pain.

VMware vSphere 4 Licensing

  • License keys are simple 25-character strings instead of complex text files.
  • License administration is built directly into VMware vCenter Server. There is no separate license server which must be installed and monitored.
  • Customers receive only one single license key for a given vSphere edition (e.g. Advanced).
  • There are no separate license keys for advanced features, such as VMware VMotion.
  • The same vSphere license key can be used on many VMware ESX hosts. Each license key encodes a CPU quantity which determines the total number of ESX hosts that can use the license key.
  • It is no longer using the VMware Infrastructure 3 licensing server or licensing model.

VMware vSphere 4 has much to offer existing customers or those who are long on cash but short on staff. If you’re already a VMware Infrastructure customer, you should upgrade to this new version—especially if you’ve struggled with downtime associated with migrating VMs from one virtual host to another, migrating those systems from one storage array to another or simply that you need zero downtime for your systems. If you’re not currently a customer but you need zero downtime, give it a shot. If, on the other hand, your just kicking virtual tires; continue kicking and shop around a bit longer.

Comments on "VMware vSphere: Out of the Box and into the Clouds"


Like so many others, the author took the VMware FT story hook, line and sinker. At best, this is fault tolerant lite. FT is usually equated with mission critical applications. That being the case, and most users wanting to benefit from advances in multi-core, users should be concerned that applications running in VMware FT are limited to a single core, i.e. there is no SMP support. Also, there are issues re latency, overhead, inability to root-cause problems, propagation of errors to other servers. The list of configuration requirements to use VMware FT runs over two pages and is worth reading. Not to mention, multiple identical servers are required — three is advised — which means multiple licenses for application and OS (three servers to support such lightweight applications!). Lastly, this is a rev 1 product; would you commit your “most important applications” to a rev 1 product?

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