VMware vSphere 4: The once and future virtualization king

VMware's big new release turns the corner on machine virtualization, and toward next-generation management of virtual machines

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There's a new format for grouping VM application stacks too, called vApps. For instance, if you have an application that has a few front-end servers and a back-end database server, you can group them under a "vApp" umbrella and manage them as a single entity, even specifying which servers need to be running before others are started, and a few other organizational bits.

There's also an older VMware concept updated for the enterprise environment: vStorage Thin Provisioning. Until now, it hasn't been possible to create an ESX VM without allocating all the virtual disk space at VM creation. Thus, a VM with a 200GB virtual disk will consume 200GB of real disk space on the selected storage device. With thin provisioning, that virtual disk can be cut, but won't use more physical storage than the VM is currently using. Thus, the 200GB virtual disk that's 50 percent full will use only 100GB on the storage device. This capability has been around for a while in VMware's desktop products and has finally made its way to the datacenter product.

For smaller shops, the new Data Recovery feature will come in handy; it promises to simplify VM backups while providing backup to disk and recovery at the file and image level.

Drive time
But how does vSphere feel -- how does it drive? I haven't had all that long to work with it, but I've noticed that vSphere's management seems to be snappier than the current version. Anyone who's worked with VMware vCenter and ESX knows that it's not uncommon for certain tasks to hang in the status center seemingly forever, maybe stuck at 40 percent complete for 10 minutes before finally lunging ahead. There's very little response from the management console during such events, and error reporting has always been extremely sparse and not easily digested. vSphere seems to improve on these issues, with faster actions, better VM integration, and an overall more fluid feel.

Time will tell if this is actually the case in production. My pre-release version of vSphere had a few problems, like the non-existent ESX host Web UI and a complete failure to successfully PXE boot a new ESX host. Being pre-release code, that's not terribly surprising, but I certainly hope those functions are present in the official release.

On the plus side, I noted improvements in host interaction with storage, such as automatic LUN discovery when adding an iSCSI target, and an overall streamlining of some previous host configuration oddities. There's also an included utility designed to automagically upgrade ESX 3.5 hosts to the new version. I'm certain there's more to discover about vSphere, and I'll report back on my experiences after I've had some time with vSphere in production.

Until then, I can say that my brief experience with vSphere has been positive, and the features offered are taking things to the next level. They also would seem to highlight just how far behind VMware's competitors really are.

VMware vSphere 4.0

CostPricing starts at $995 for three physical servers, or $166 per processor, for the Essentials edition, and ranges up to $3,495 per processor for the Enterprise Plus edition. Support and maintenance subscriptions are sold separately.
PlatformsESX Server runs on Intel- and AMD-based server hardware and supports 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, Red Hat Linux, Suse Linux, Ubuntu Linux, CentOS, Debian, FreeBSD, Sun Solaris, and Novell NetWare and OES OSes
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