VMware vows to overhaul data center with “cloud operating system”

VMware has unveiled vSphere, the long awaited overhaul of its core virtualization platform which is designed to aggregate the virtual resources in the data center into one centrally managed computing pool.

Seven months after VMware began teasing the industry with previews of the “Virtual Datacenter Operating System,” VMware dropped that moniker and is now calling vSphere a “cloud operating system” to take advantage of growing interest in cloud computing and the idea of the private cloud.

In pushing the private cloud, VMware is hoping IT shops will build highly virtualized, fault-tolerant, self-service data centers that resemble those of cloud providers such as Amazon and Google, but which exist solely within the firewall for the benefit of an enterprise's own users. VMware said it will eventually release an upgrade letting IT shops connect their private clouds to cloud services offered commercially by the likes of Terremark, Savvis and SunGard.

VSphere is a major move for VMware and one that was necessary to keep the virtualization market leader ahead of competitors Microsoft and Citrix, analysts say.

“VMware has Microsoft, Citrix and in a very niche way Parallels over in the Mac market nipping at their heels,” says Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence. “There's been a lot of buzz about [Microsoft's] Hyper-v. Citrix has done a lot of price cutting. VMware needs to say 'OK, I see your initiative and I raise it.”

VSphere is the follow-up to VMware Infrastructure 3, the name given to VMware's core hypervisor and related management tools. VSphere will be available later in the second quarter.

Bogomil Balkansky, VMware's vice president of product marketing, says the goal of the cloud operating system is to turn IT into a pay-as-you-go service that is always available through a Web portal. VSphere aggregates all the virtualized x86 components of the data center and gives the IT administrator greater control over service levels, he says. “Our role is to enable customers to build their own internal clouds,” he says.

VSphere will let customers create a single computing pool consisting of as many as 32 physical servers and 2,048 processing cores, 1,280 virtual machines (VM), 32TB of RAM, 16 petabytes of storage and 8,000 network ports, according to VMware.

Compared to VMware Infrastructure 3, vSphere will double the processors available to VMs, more than double the network interface cards available to VMs, quadruple memory, triple network throughput, and double maximum I/O operations per second to more than 200,000.

Thin provisioning technology will cut storage needs in half, and other improvements will let customers consolidate onto fewer physical servers and save on power and cooling. A Distributed Power Management system will use VMotion live migration to automatically place VMs on as few servers as possible while powering down physical boxes that aren't needed. Live migration of both VMs and storage has been enhanced to make it faster and easier, DiDio says

New fault tolerance capabilities will guarantee failover with zero data loss and zero downtime in the case of hardware failure, Balkansky says. This is an improvement over today's VMware high availability software, in which failing over requires about a two-minute service interruption, he says.

VMware also collaborated with Cisco to develop a Distributed Switch, a software switch that standardizes server security, storage and network settings, allowing the automation of configuration management and reduction of errors related to manual processes, according to VMware.

Pund-IT analyst Charles King says VSphere, coupled with a new EMC Symmetrix storage system designed for virtual data centers, is a big step forward in cloud computing technology.

“Frankly, the cloud is something that cannot exist without virtualization,” King says. With EMC's new system highlighting the importance of mapping virtual servers to the supporting storage environment, “that's a place where the two companies working together can provide a very interesting and very powerful value proposition,” he says.

In conjunction with VMware's announcement, Unisys is releasing a line of servers with vSphere embedded. “The VMware software allows greater scalability, more virtual machines you can put onto one server,” says Rod Sapp, Unisys director of marketing for enterprise servers.

Among Unisys' new line of servers is the ES7000, a high-end machine with as many as 96 Intel-based processing cores. Previously, VMware was able to scale to 32 cores, but with vSphere it will scale up to 64 cores and enable 256 VMs per server, Sapp says. Citrix can also scale its virtualization technology up to 64 cores but the limit for Microsoft's Hyper-V is 24, according to Sapp.

256 is lot more VMs than will fit on most servers. But in general customers can expect to place about 30% more VMs on each server with vSphere, Balkansky says.

As with any new IT product, there are limitations in vSphere. The ability to federate the internal data center with those of cloud providers will not be available until later this year. This federation will let customers manage internal and external resources from the same pane of glass, but it will only work with the products of vendors who are using vSphere.

VMware's cloud partners include more than 500 services providers such as Terremark, Savvis, Telefonica, T-Systems, SunGard and BlueLock. But the list does not include Amazon, one of the most popular vendors offering storage and compute services over the Internet cloud.

Additionally, vSphere will not be capable of managing the hypervisors of other vendors, raising the potential of vendor lock-in. Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager, on the other hand, is capable of managing VMs created with VMware's ESX hypervisor.

Microsoft has criticized VMware for making its products too expensive, an issue VMware addressed with vSphere by offering additional pricing options to lower the point of entry. Packages for small IT shops start at $166 per processor. Last year, VMware made its basic hypervisor free, but still charges for the management tools that help data centers realize all the flexibility benefits of virtualization.

Adding lower pricing tiers is a smart move, DiDio says. “As server virtualization becomes more commoditized they had to do it, and not just because of Microsoft. Citrix has had price declines too. You have to battle market pressure, especially when there is more competition and you know the competition is gunning for you.”

In addition to unveiling vSphere, VMware announced services for the VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace, a Web site that offers virtual appliances that bunch the virtual server, operating system and application together into one downloadable package. The new features include VAM App on Demand, which lets customers test a virtual appliance by deploying it in the cloud without incurring hardware and setup costs.

VMware also announced that cloud partners including Terremark, Tata, and iTricity are offering free trials for customers to run applications on their hosting platforms.

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