Rolling Review: Virtual Iron 4.5 VDI

The price is right for small and midsize companies, but provisioning capabilities fall short for larger shops.
Virtual Iron positions itself as a low-cost alternative to VMware in the server virtualization market. Sounds like a smart business plan--and Oracle announced earlier this year that it's purchasing the company, which was founded in 2003, for an undisclosed sum. Oracle says it will use the Virtual Iron suite to complement Oracle VM, its own server virtualization software. The move makes sense as both Virtual Iron and Oracle VM are based on the open source Xen hypervisor.

To see whether Virtual Iron 4.5 lives up to its promise, we put it to the test in a network infrastructure that simulated a 100-user company with four geographically dispersed locations.

A typical Virtual Iron 4.5 environment consists of a VI-Center management server along with one or many managed nodes, which are the equivalent of ESX servers in the VMware world. Virtual Iron's implementation of its virtualization services are somewhat unique in that communication between the management server and managed nodes takes place over a dedicated management network. As managed nodes come online, they do a PXE boot of Virtual Iron's Virtualization Services agent and make their resources available to the VI-Center for use as server or desktop virtual machines.

You won't need professional services to get this product up and running. Using a standard 32-bit Windows server as a management platform, we quickly worked our way through the wizard-driven installation. Those familiar with VirtualCenter or XenServer immediately will feel comfortable with the VI-Center interface. After configuring our server to PXE boot and cabling our Intel VT/AMD-V-capable 64-bit servers (required) to the VI management network, the management server immediately discovered us and downloaded the Virtualization Services agent. Running a discovery process within VI-Center is all that's required to complete the addition of managed nodes.

We then planned our deployment by creating the necessary server and desktop virtual machines required for our test environment. Operating system support in Virtual Center encompasses Windows 2000 and higher, SUSE, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, among others. While Virtual Center can't match the OS support provided by ESX, it sure beats Hyper-V.

Rolling Review
Reviewed so far
VMware VDI 2.1:
Server virtualization stalwart has strong desktop chops, too.

Citrix XenDesktop
Built-in multimedia enhancements ease the virtual desktop experience for clients.

Sychron OnDemand Desktop:
Solid provisioning and resource management; can be pricey for smaller organizations.

Sun VDI 3.0:
Sun VDI boasts impressive performance, but lacks support for Hyper-V and Xen at the virtualization layer.

Virtual Iron 4.5:
Limited provisioning capabilities and no out-of-the-box connection brokers limit this VDI platform, but the price is hard to beat.
Manual Labor

As we set to implementing virtual desktops, we faced what is perhaps Virtual Iron's biggest virtual desktop infrastructure disadvantage: There's no out-of-the-box Web-enabled or client-based connection broker available.

To get around this issue, we had to build a dedicated virtual desktop for each employee and manually map employees to their desktops via the RDP client. We then wrote up a batch script that could be used to automatically launch a full remote desktop session for all virtual desktop users.

Unfortunately, we didn't have a workaround for Virtual Iron's limited provisioning capabilities. While you can easily clone servers and desktops to gold images, you can't automate the process of creating 100 virtual desktops simultaneously, and the cloning process itself is rather slow. You also can't detach a user's profile from her virtual desktop from within Virtual Iron, so deploying updates to a large number of virtual desktops requires that you treat them as independent physical desktops. Finally, you can't log users into a pool of virtual desktops with Virtual Iron's out-of-the-box feature set.

But don't bury Virtual Iron as a candidate just yet. Its relatively low cost of $799 per socket gets you the entire Virtual Iron suite and its enterprise live-migration features. You'll pay almost four times that much for a similar feature set with VMware Infrastructure 3 Enterprise. For small and midsize businesses, Virtual Iron makes sense because of its low-cost, multi-OS support, ease of use, and "robust enough" live migration and fault-tolerance capabilities. That said, if our test bed were a 10,000-employee company, we'd likely look elsewhere.

Randy George is an industry analyst covering security and infrastructure topics.