VMworld 2013: Networking and storage take center stage

VMware kicks off its annual user conference with unveilings of VMware NSX, Virtual SAN, and vSphere 5.5

VMware opens the VMworld 2013 conference in San Francisco this morning with a flurry of product announcements that both underscore the company's leadership in virtualization and help to flesh out its concept of the software-defined data center (SDDC). Along with updates of the vSphere virtualization platform and the vCloud Suite for managing vSphere-based private clouds, VMware is unveiling a new software-defined storage solution called Virtual SAN and a new network virtualization solution called NSX.

Virtual SAN turns the local storage of multiple vSphere hosts into highly available, shared storage that supports SSD for read caching and policy-based provisioning of virtual machines based on performance and availability requirements. VMware says a public beta will be available in Q3 2013.

NSX is based largely on the network virtualization solution that VMware acquired with Nicira last year. Although optimized for vSphere in a number of ways, NSX also supports the KVM and Xen hypervisors (with Hyper-V on the road map) and works with third-party cloud management systems such as OpenStack and CloudStack. Aimed at large enterprises and service providers -- organizations with a significant stake in making network provisioning faster and easier -- NSX will be available in Q4 2013.

The Version 5.5 releases of vSphere with Operations Management and the vCloud Suite, both expected to be available in Q3 2013, incorporate a lengthy list of new features and improvements. These start with the new abilities to leverage flash in vSphere hosts for read caching and to bring high availability to certain monitored applications and extend to improvements in backup, replication, single sign-on, network troubleshooting, the Web client, and host hardware support.

Some of the improvements are designed to make virtualization more suitable for applications that continue to cling to bare metal. For instance, a new latency-sensitivity setting for virtual machines helps make the case for virtualizing low-latency applications such as stock trading, while new Hadoop virtualization extensions simplify the virtualization of Hadoop workloads and bring high availability to the entire Hadoop stack.

Incremental changes

The vSphere 5.5 release introduces incremental changes and updates across the board. At the VM level, virtual hardware Version 10 brings a number of new features. New AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) support enables multiple SATA devices on the same controller. New graphics features include support for Intel and AMD GPUs on Windows and Linux guests, along with support for OpenGL Version 2.1 for Linux guests. At the processor level you'll find new support for CPU-C states, which make it possible both to increase scale and conserve power. New hardware support includes hot-pluggable SSD PCIe memory devices, which now can be added or removed without taking the machine offline.

The new latency-sensitivity setting changes how the hypervisor handles the allocation of physical resources to the virtual machine, reserving memory, increasing vCPU ownership of the physical CPU, and bypassing CPU scheduling at the virtualization layer. This feature can significantly improve the response time of a typical virtual machine in order to meet the demands of latency sensitive applications.

VMware shows Microsoft Cluster Services some love in this release. Windows Server 2012 fail-over clustering is supported in vSphere 5.5 in the form of round robin path policy plus Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and iSCSI protocol support.

The vCenter Server has seen a number of incremental changes as well. The vCenter Server Appliance now supports as many as 500 vSphere hosts and 5,000 virtual machines. The vSphere Web Client has been updated to support OS X for VM Console access, deploying OVF templates, and attaching client devices. On all supported Web browsers, the Web Client adds new drag-and-drop capability along with the ability to filter search list items and quickly access the 10 most recently accessed objects. VMware has also ironed out a number of wrinkles in vCenter Single Sign-On. The improvements include tighter integration with Microsoft Active Directory and a simplified installation process.

This new release of vSphere also brings the inevitable scalability increases to the ESXi hypervisor. Host configuration maximums increase from 160 physical CPUs to 320, 2TB of memory to 4TB, eight NUMA nodes to 16, and 2,048 virtual CPUs to 4,096.

Networking enhancements

VMware has placed a special emphasis on networking enhancements in this release. Some of them probably won't make headlines or turn many heads, but they will definitely make a difference to the people getting the job done. Diagnosing network problems often requires an analysis of the actual traffic on the wire. This takes both troubleshooting skill and the tools to get at the packets of interest. VMware vSphere 5.5 includes new packet capture functionality and a customized version of TCPDUMP to allow you to access host network traffic at the virtual NIC, virtual switch, or uplink level.

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