Server virtualization's 800-pound gorilla gets more agile in the face of rising competition.

Joe Hernick, IT Director

April 23, 2009

5 Min Read

To be clear, setting up a single ESX 3.5 host managed by the standard VM Infrastructure Client tool was fairly painless. Unless you want to access iSCSI storage, that is. Or tinker with the many robust networking or configuration options.

Whereas other vendors in this Rolling Review address storage area networking during basic setup, the default ESX install assumes local storage. Configuring iSCSI, setting VMKernal interfaces, selecting network interface cards for data access, picking a SAN target, and setting up data stores took many, many steps. Setup was made possible using VMware Infrastructure Client's built-in help, but it was laborious compared with most competitors' iSCSI out of the gate.

We built four ESX hosts on virtualization-enabled HP multicore Advanced Micro Devices servers. Everything was connected to our Dell EqualLogic 5000-series SAS and iSCSI arrays. As we've said before, having many platters across 48-TB drives is great for I/O and fantastic for virtualization clusters. Sixteen 15,000-rpm drives in the SAS array also made quick work of storage tasks; for our money and for most small shops, we'd consider the higher capacity of the Serial ATA. After a hiccup attempting to install Virtual Center and its requisite MS SQL 2005 on a 64-bit Windows 2003 box, we easily set up a spare Windows XP workstation as our management host. Data and SAN connections were physically divided to two Cisco Gigabit Ethernet switches, and everything was first run on a closed network for base testing, then opened up to a 400-user public network to get some real-world experience.

We configured individual hosts with both Infrastructure Client utility and Virtual Center. Within VirtualCenter, we created a test cluster with our four physical hosts and played around with manually shuffling virtual machines from host to host with VMotion. Even though we've been doing this for a bit, we still smile when we watch a running, CPU-loaded Windows 2003 VM hop from host to host in a matter of seconds without dropping a beat (or a ping). We used the VirtualCenter to create a resource pool so that we could conceptually view and manage our four servers as an aggregate pool of CPU and memory resources.

We have no complaints with performance; we were very impressed with 32-bit Linux and 32- and 64-bit Windows performance in our small-business tests. We readily built clusters of shared resources relying on the SAN for centralized storage. After the painless installation of VMware client tools, cloning, snapshots, and VMotion flexibility all met or exceeded our ease of use and performance expectations when compared with real-world physical servers; you're doing yourself a disservice if your shop rejects virtualization out of hand.

Rolling Review

SERVER VIRTUALIZATION MANAGEMENT

Business value
We tested virtualization management platforms to see if they lower hardware costs and save time and headaches for IT departments.

Reviewed so far
Citrix XenServer
Performance, features, and price are appealing; lacks VMware's third-party support.

Microsoft's Hyper-V
Free, easy segue to basic virtualization for Microsoft shops; features cost extra.

Parallels Server for Mac
The only game in town for Mac server virtualization, but its features are limited.

Virtual Iron
An easy-to-administer product at a very aggressive price.

VMware VirtualCenter
Pricey market leader offers unmatched support, quirks.

More about this rolling review >>

Our EqualLogic SAN goes one step farther, offloading snapshot tasks to the storage array -- this is the first chance we've had to test this out. Offloading snapshots to the SAN hardware saves CPU resources in the host cluster. This is another example of a benefit from VMware's place as front-runner: New features from third-party vendors in the virtualization arena come out for the VMware ecosystem first, then broaden support to include other vendors.

To dig further into our small-business simulation, we virtualized real-world Windows servers using Virtual Center's Guided Consolidation tool. While the provided recommendations were fairly straightforward, the real benefit of VMware's Active Directory integration would shine in a larger data center environment, where the tool continually probes and monitors physical Windows servers as candidates for conversion. Once converted, the automated rule sets assigned VMs to hosts without issue. A big, shiny consolidation button sits on the Virtual Center 2.5 interface, offering suggestions and impact analysis for virtualizing physical boxes in your shop. As we added VMs or purposefully "mismanaged" our test farm, Virtual Center soundly adapted to changing loads and existing rule sets and VMotioned us out of harm's way. Everything worked as planned.

On a final note, automated patch management left us with smiles all around. After a somewhat byzantine process of configuring VirtualCenter to add the Update Manager component and client plug-in, we set up automated patching for ESX hosts and Windows VMs using Update Manager. We followed VMware's recommendation and set up a three-hour interval to check for updates. After selecting security patches for application, we picked an idle host for updates. We also readily applied Windows security patches to specific VMs and had comfort knowing we could easily roll back to pre-patch snapshots. This isn't a magic bullet for all data center patch requirements, but it is a nice plus from VMware and is a clear example of how virtualization can reduce administrative burdens.

VMware ESX 3.5 starts at a base price of $1,540 for two processors, Distributed Resource Scheduler starts at $2,414, and the VMotion/Storage VMotion combo starts at $4,024. VCenter Server Foundation starts at $2,040 for three physical hosts and ranges up to $6,044 and beyond to manage hundreds of hosts. Various bundles and a la carte options also are offered.

Joe Hernick is an industry analyst and former Fortune 100 IT executive.

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About the Author(s)

Joe Hernick

IT Director

Joe Hernick is in his seventh year as director of academic technology at Suffield Academy, where he teaches, sits on the Academic Committee, provides faculty training and is a general proponent of information literacy. He was formerly the director of IT and computer studies chair at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, CT, and spent 10 years in the insurance industry as a director and program manager at CIGNA.

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