vSphere 4 steps up, falls short of the cloud

A bunch of great new features make vSphere 4 a whale of an upgrade. But a 'cloud operating system'?

Today's announcement of VMware vSphere 4 proved once again that I'm a sucker for futuristic-sounding technology. As soon as I saw the tag line "the industry's first cloud operating system," I was off. Whoa! They've done it! An OS-like layer that spans an entire datacenter of servers and lets you scale and allocate resources like Google, everyone's favorite model of IT nirvana!

Then I took a couple of deep breaths. Operating system? How could it be an operating system? That would mean people would have to write applications for a virtual machine, so you must still need to install operating systems on top of vSphere 4. So calling vSphere 4 an OS must be...a metaphor?

[ Check out all the news on VMware vSphere's launch. | For more on VMware in action, see InfoWorld Test Center reviews on "VMware Views is good news, bad news" | Get the real story on the cloud from whurley, InfoWorld's cloud computing blogger. Dave Marshall brings you nonstop coverage of virtualization in the Virtualization Report blog. ]

Well then, certainly, there must be some other huge breakthrough. Like no longer having to manage server instances as you scale? I asked our resident virtualization oracle, Executive Editor Doug Dineley, about that and he answered...no. You still gotta do that.

While vSphere 4 is an admirable addition to the VMware line, it does not represent the kind of paradigm shift that would warrant the description "cloud operating system." If you wanted to be really charitable, you could say that virtualization (or some other scheme that transforms physical machines into virtual compute resources) is fundamental to creating a "private cloud." And vSphere 4 certainly makes rolling out virtualization easier. But an OS? Nope.

Nonetheless, in Doug's analysis, the scalability improvements in vSphere 4 are a big deal. The specs speak for themselves: You now get twice as many virtual processors (read cores) per VM (from four to eight), four times the memory (from 64GB to 255GB), and a three-times increase in network throughput -- plus a two-fold increase in I/O operations per second (thanks to hypervisor tuning, VMware says). Add processor advances like Nehalem plus VMware Fault Tolerance (the new ability to cluster the VMware ESX hosts) and it will become more feasible to run heavy-duty apps (like SQL Server, Oracle Database, Microsoft Exchange) in a VM, something IT shops have been reluctant to do.

And there's a ton of other cool stuff, including vStorage Thin Provisioning to augment live migration for storage virtualization; de-duping to reduce storage requirements for virtual backups; and vShield Zones that enhance security by letting you monitor network traffic among VMs and enforce firewall policies.

The feature that goes furthest toward a cloudlike future is VMware vApp, which VMware describes an "industry standard way to encapsulate all virtual machine components of an application and describe their compute and memory resource requirements." The standard itself is OVF (Open Virtual Machine Format). Any virtual machine packaged in OVF format can be deployed to a VMware, Microsoft, or Citrix hypervisor. VMware seems to be well ahead of the other vendors in using the format to encapsulate hardware requirements.

Guys like Doug who are immersed in virtualization understand these are all great features that make complete sense given what has come before. But they address shortcomings or pain points in managing the virtual server farm and fall short of introducing a new paradigm. vApp is a first step toward enabling virtual machines to travel from one domain to another (like from the corporate datacenter to Amazon, or even from local datacenter to remote one) and carry their requirements with them. But federated management of multiple VMware pools or server farms? Still on the to-do list.

If you define the cloud as a virtualized environment that enables you to scale applications transparently, in which applications themselves are virtualized and consume as many resources as they need, then vSphere 4 doesn't come close. More to the point, as Doug wryly notes, is that the maximum size of the VMware vSphere "compute plant" is 32 physical servers. In what way is that a "cloud"?

VMware consistently wins InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards, so we have little doubt that vSphere 4 is a fine piece of work and a worthy advance. And I'm a firm believer that it's important to have a vision for the future of IT -- and that ideal future state, whenever it arrives, sure looks a lot like cloud computing. But as the futurist Paul Saffo once said, never mistake a clear view for a short distance.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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