VMware launches vSphere

Earlier today, VMware launched their latest virtualisation platformvSphere. vSphere is what was once known as Virtual Infrastructure (VI) 4 and, for those who are unfamiliar with the name, the idea is that virtual infrastructure is more of a description of what VMware’s products do than a product name and the company is trying to put forward the message that, after more than 10 years of virtualisation (originally just running multiple operating systems on a workstation, then on a hypervisor, then moving to a virtual infrastructure), this fourth generation of products will transform the datacentre into a private “cloud” in what they refer to as an evolutionary step but a revolutionary approach.
VMware vSphere

Most of the launch was presented by VMware President and CEO, Paul Maritz, who welcomed a succession of leaders from Cisco, Intel, and HP to the stage in what sometimes felt like a bizarre “who’s who in The Valley” networking event, but had to be ousted from the stage by his own CTO, Stephen Herrod, in order to keep the presentation on schedule! Later on, he was joined by Michael Dell before VMware Chairman, Joseph M. Tucci closed down the event.

VMware President and CEO, Paul Maritz, speaking at the vSphere 4 launchFor a man whose career included a 14-year spell at Microsoft, where he was regarded as the number 3 behind Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, it seemed odd to me how Maritz referred to the Redmond giant several times during his presentation but never by name – always as a remark about relative capabilities which seemed to indicate that, far from being a market leader that is comfortable with its portfolio, VMware is actually starting to regard Microsoft (and presumably Citrix too) as credible competition – not to be disregarded but certainly not to be named in the launch of a new version of their premier product!

Maritz also seemed to take a dig at some other vendors, as he cited IBM as claiming to have invented the hypervisor [my colleagues from ICL may disagree] but not having realised the potential, and referring to some clouds as “the ultimate Californian hotels” where you can check in but not check out as they are highly proprietary computing systems. I can only imagine that he’s referring to offerings for Amazon and Google here, as Microsoft’s Windows Azure is built on the same infrastructure that runs in on-premise datacentres – Windows Server and the .NET Framework, extended for the cloud – in just the same way that vSphere is VMware’s cloud operating system – be that internal, external or a hybrid and elastic cloud which spans on premise and service-based computing paradigms.

It’s all about the cloud

So, ignoring the politics, what is vSphere about? VMware view vSphere as a better way to build computing platforms, from small and medium businesses (SMBs) to the cloud. Maritz explained that “the cloud” is a useful shorthand for the important attributes of this platform, built from industry standard components (referring to cloud offerings from Amazon, Google, and “other” vendors – Microsoft then!), offering scalable, on-demand, flexible, well-managed, lights-out configurations. Whilst today’s datacentres are seen by VMware as pillars of complexity (albeit secure and well-understood complexity), VMware see the need for something evolutionary, something that remains secure and open – and they want to provide the bridge between datacentre and cloud, severing complex links, jacking up the software to separate it from the hardware and slide in new level of software (vSphere), whereby the applications, middleware and operating system see an aggregated pool of hardware as a single giant computing resource. Not just single machines but an evolutionary roadmap from today’s datacentres. A platform. An ecosystem. One which offers: compute; storage; network, security, availability, and management capabilities, extendable by partners.

If you take away the marketing rhetoric, VMware’s vision of the future is not dissimilar to Microsoft’s. Both see devices becoming less significant as the focus shifts towards the end user. Both have a vision for a cloud-centric services, backed up with on-premise computing where business requirements demand it. And both seem to believe the same analysts that say 70% of IT budgets today are spent on things that do not differentiate businesses from their competition.

Of course, VMware claims to be further ahead than their competition. That’s no surprise – but both VMware and Microsoft plan to bring their cloud offerings to fruition within the next six months (whilst VMware have announced product availability for vSphere, they haven’t said when their vCloud service provider partners will be ready; although Windows Azure’s availability will be an iterative approach and the initial offering will not include all of the eventual capabilities). And, whilst vSphere has some cool new features that further differentiate it from the Microsoft and Citrix virtualisation offerings, that particular technology gap is closing too.

Not just for the enterprise

Whilst VMware aim to revolutionalise the “plumbing”, they also claim that the advanced features make their solutions applicable to the low end of the market, announcing an Essentials product to provide “always on IT in a box”, using a small vSphere configuration with just a few servers, priced from $166 per CPU (or $995 for 3 servers)

Clients – not desktops

For the last year or so, VMware have been pushing VDI as an approach and, in some environments, that seems to be making some traction. Moving away from desktops and focusing on people rather than devices, VDI has become VMware View, part of the vClient initiative which takes the “desktop” into the cloud.

Some great new features

If Maritz’s clumsy Eagles references weren’t bad enough, Stephen Herrod’s section included a truly awful video with a gold disc delivered in Olympic relay style and “additional security” for the demo that featured “the presidential Blackberry”. It was truly cringe-worthy but Herrod did at least show off some of the technology as he talked through the efficiency, control, and choice marketing message:

  • Efficiency:
    • The ability to handle:
      • 2x the number of virtual processors per virtual machine (up from 4 to 8).
      • 2.5x more virtual NICs per virtual machine (up from 4 to 10).
      • 4x more memory per virtual machine (up from 64 GB to 255GB).
      • 3x increase in network throughput (up from 9 Gb/s to 30Gb/s).
      • 3x increase in the maximum recorded IOPS (up to over 300,000).
    • The ability to create vSphere clusters to build a giant computer with up to
      • 32 hosts.
      • 2048 cores.
      • 1280 VMs.
      • 3 million IOPS.
      • 32TB RAM.
      • 16PB storage.
    • vStorage thin provisioning – saving up to 50% storage through data de-duplication.
    • Distributed power management – resulting in 50% power savings during VMmark testing and allowing servers to be turned on/off without affecting SLAs. Just moving from VI3 to vSphere 4 should be expected to result in a 20% saving.
  • Control:
    • Host profiles make the giant computer easy to extend and scale with desired configuration management functionality.
    • Fault tolerance for zero downtime and zero data loss on failover. A shadow VM is created as a replica running on a second host, re-executing every piece of IO to keep the two VMs in lockstep. If one fails, there is seamless cutover and another VM is spawned so that it continues to be protected.
    • VMsafe APIs provide new always-on security offerings including vShield zones to maintain compliance without diverting non-compliant machines to a different network but zoning them within vSphere so that they can continue to run efficiently within the shared infrastructure whilst security compliance issues are addressed.
  • Choice:
    • An extensive hardware compatibility list.
    • 4x the number of operating systems supported as “the leading competitor”.
    • Dynamic provisioning.
    • Storage VMotion – the ability to move a VM between storage arrays in the same way as VMotion moves VM between hosts.

Packaging and pricing

It took 1000 VMware engineers, in 14 offices across the globe, three million engineering hours, to add 150 new features in the development of VMware vSphere 4.

VMware claim that vSphere is “The best platform for building cloud infrastructures”. But that’s exactly it – a platform for building the infrastructure. Something has to run on top of that infrastructure too! Nevertheless VMware does look to have a great new product set and features like vStorage thin provisioning, VMSafe APIs, Storage VMotion and Fault Tolerance are big steps forward. On the other hand, vSphere is still very expensive – at a time when IT budgets are being squeezed.

VMware vSphere 4 will be available in a number of product editions (Essentials, Essentials Plus, Standard, Advanced, Enterprise and Enterprise Plus) with per-CPU pricing starting at $166 and rising to $3495, not including the cost of vCenter for management of the infrastructure ($1495 to $4995 per instance) and a mandatory support subscription.

A comparison chart for the various product features is also available.

General availability of vSphere 4 is expected during the second quarter of 2009.

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