Is this the end of the road for VMware Server?

VMware's hosted or Type-2 hypervisor has been around for nearly a decade. But has this virtualization platform reached end of life?

There has been quite a bit of interesting chatter and a whole lot of speculation within the VMware community lately about the future and viability of its free VMware Server product. VMware does seem focused on the vSphere product and how it ultimately relates to cloud computing, but have they turned a blind eye to VMware Server?

People are curious. So answers are needed. The first question, is VMware Server being discontinued? Second, is VMware even still remotely interested in advancing this Type-2 or hosted virtualization platform? And finally, why do end-users care? Isn't this old technology? Why not just upgrade to vSphere?

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The VMware Server virtualization platform has been in existence for nearly a decade and really does have quite an interesting history. Even though vSphere is the current champion with VMware and its users, Server still has a strong fan base.

VMware Server has been the little brother to VMware ESX Server ever since the two platforms first hit the streets as 1.0 products back in 2001. Originally called VMware GSX Server (where GSX is said to have stood for Ground Storm thanks to its supposed hippie beginnings), this product looked more like its desktop cousin, VMware Workstation, than it did its older brother ESX Server (also said to have stood for Electric Sky -- I'm not making this stuff up) because it was a Type-2 or hosted virtualization platform, meaning that it was installed and operated on top of a host operating system rather than being directly installed on the bare-metal of the server itself.

As the product matured, it seemed to take on the role of a proving ground for both VMware and its customers. VMware could use Server as a test bed to try out new features and functionalities before rolling them out for its more enterprise offering with ESX. From a consumer perspective, Server was a cheaper (and later a free) alternative for getting into the virtualization game. And once virtualized with Server, it was a fairly easy migration path to upgrade to the more enterprise-ready ESX Server product line down the road.

In 2006 VMware changed the name from GSX Server to Server and at the same time made the product free of charge. Since then VMware has used Server to help seed the market and encourage people to adopt VMware virtualization technologies.

So where does Server stand now? And does this discussion have any merit?

When asked directly if Server was going to be discontinued, VMware never really gave me a definitive answer. Instead Mark Chuang, group manager for product marketing at VMware, said VMware doesn't comment on future road map plans. However, Chuang did say that his company is committed to offering a broad portfolio of Type-1 and Type-2 hypervisor products going forward to address broad customer needs.

Chuang added, "We do see the broader server market shifting toward Type-1 hypervisor products for performance reasons. However, VMware will continue to have Type-1 and Type-2 products that will meet the needs of the server market."

So what exactly does this mean if we read between the lines? Chuang says that VMware will continue to invest in Type-2 hypervisors going forward, and we know that VMware plans to continue advancing and supporting its Workstation platform, a Type-2 virtualization platform. But Chuang says that its Type-2 products will "meet the needs of the server market." Workstation is a desktop virtualization platform, so it doesn't fit the bill of a server product.

What is defined as a VMware server-class platform? On the company's website, it lists VMware vSphere, VMware Server, and VMware vSphere Hypervisor (formerly called ESXi) as the only three server-class products. Also, vSphere and vSphere Hypervisor are both clearly Type-1 hypervisor products. Does that mean Server is indeed safe from getting the axe? Well, maybe not.

Although Server is still available for download on VMware's website, the product hasn't been updated for the last nine months -- not since Oct. 26, 2009, when it reached version 2.0.2. It also has known security vulnerabilities such as VMSA-2010-0005 and VMSA-2009-0016 that list Server 2.0.x security remedies as either "not being fixed at this time" or "affected, patch pending" -- not exactly comforting answers to those who are still using the product.

VMware's General Support/Lifecycle Policies Web page clearly states that VMware Server 2.x will reach "End of General Support" on June 30, 2011. That could also mean that VMware has a newer version of the product in the works, couldn't it?

Looking at a more recent VMware Security Advisory (VMSA) alert, VMSA-2010-0007.1, VMware states:

End of General Support for VMware Server 2.0 is 2011-06-30, users should plan to upgrade to the newest release of either ESXi or VMware Player.

Here we have backup for the "End of General Support for VMware Server 2.0 on 6/30/2011" statement, but this time VMware offers users the option to upgrade to either the free ESXi or VMware Player platforms. With other platforms that have been or will be discontinued, such as the older version of VMware Workstation 6.x (Workstation is now at version 7.1), users were told they should plan to upgrade to the "newest release available." Good advice, but obviously not an option for Server 2.0 users. Instead of being told to upgrade to the newest release available, Server users are being directed to migrate over to one of two other free platforms.

The last question, why do people care? So what if VMware Server goes away as long as VMware still offers free alternative solutions like VMware Player and VMware vSphere Hypervisor?

One VMware community member who has taken an active role in this discussion is Reindl Harald with the Lounge interactive design. Harald said his environment is running both VMware Server for the development environment and ESXi for his production infrastructure. He never would have switched his professional infrastructure to VMware without first playing with the free VMware Server product, building sample machines, letting them run night and day, and finally migrating the workloads over to a VMware Infrastructure. He called VMware Server "the best entry point solution for virtualization" and said it's a really good offering for testing environments and small, live setups when you can't necessarily afford to buy new hardware.

The problem, according to Harald and other community members, is that the two "replacement" products (Player and vSphere Hypervisor) don't individually provide the same solution set that VMware Server does. While both are excellent products, there are mutually exclusive features at play.

VMware Player is a desktop application -- not a server-class product. You can't run your virtual machines headless, and you can't auto-start selected virtual machines on boot. Nor does it allow you to remotely manage the VMs from a Web browser or any other external management solution such as Perl, PowerShell, or the VMware VI SDK.

VMware vSphere Hypervisor offers a lot of improvements and advancements over Server, but it has its drawbacks. Because it's a bare-metal platform, you can't use the host server for anything other than a virtualization host server. It also has a much smaller set of approved hardware. You can't just install this platform on top of any old piece of equipment; it has to meet VMware hardware compatibility guidelines. It also lacks support for certain local hardware devices such as sound, unsupported SATA cards, and USB devices. And you can't put it in the WAN because there are no firewall rules.

It sounds like Server still has a purpose. Why then would VMware shy away from it? Perhaps there is no longer a market for this type of virtualization technology?

Tell that to other virtualization companies like Parallels or Oracle, which are still making a go of it and gaining ground within the virtualization market with this type of hosted technology. Oracle continues to advance the popular free and open source VirtualBox platform, and Parallels is making quite a name for itself as the only current player in the Type-2 Apple server market. Depending on which camp you are in as to whether it is a Type-1 or Type-2 hypervisor, let's not forget about Red Hat's KVM!

Maybe I'm wearing a tin foil hat here for absolutely no reason. Chuang did say that VMware was still interested in Type-2 hypervisors in the server market. Perhaps the data points above mean nothing and those of us who question Server's future are reading more into it than there really is. Maybe VMware Server 2.0.3 is right around the corner. Or maybe VMware Server 3.0 is in the works with bug and security fixes, complete with new features galore! Maybe.

What do you think? And are you currently using VMware Server anywhere in your environment?

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