VMware Launches vSphere 4, Its Operating System for the Cloud

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2009-04-21

VMware Launches vSphere 4, Its Operating System for the Cloud

VMware on April 21 launched vSphere 4, a major update to its ESX Server hypervisor, declaring it to be the first operating system specifically engineered for cloud computing. It is the first major upgrade to the product since 2006.

vSphere 4 amounts to a rebuild of VMware's core virtualization platform. Fundamentally, it combines virtual resources in the data center into one centrally managed pool of computing power. It will be made available in the second quarter of 2009, the company said.

vSphere 4's second purpose is to facilitate delivery of IT infrastructure as a service to enterprises, so IT departments can build their own private cloud systems to provide business services internally for the company and for trusted partners, supply chain participants and other business associates.

In short, VMware wants to become the system of choice to run enterprise data centers, and further, to enable these complex systems to reach out and touch others in order to gain business advantages.

"Cloud computing has become known as the next big thing and is now sort of a buzzword, but we believe that with vSphere 4, we can make cloud computing a reality," Bogomil  Balkansky, VMware's vice president of product marketing for servers, told eWEEK.

"It's the first iteration of VMware's virtualization as an enabler for cloud infrastructure. It scales higher, runs faster, offers more automated management technologies."

A lot of the recent talk about this new computing services model, Balkansky said, has been focused on public external clouds -- such as Amazon EC2 and S3, GoogleApps, Salesforce.com and others.

"Those will all have a very interesting effect on the industry, but we believe where the action is going to be in cloud computing, in the next few years, is helping companies build and transform their internal infrastructure into internal clouds, or internal cloud providers," Balkansky said.

"A company data center can act with efficiency [using this new operating system] and with the reliability of an internal utility provider, if they want."

vSphere 4 also provides the foundation for enterprise IT departments to connect their own homemade private clouds behind a firewall with those of partners -- or established public cloud services, such as those noted earlier.

Why Call It an OS?

Why is VMware calling this an operating system, rather than a cloud computing architecture? Operating systems, in the classical sense of the IT term, refer to products such as Microsoft Windows, Apple's Mac OS, Linux, Unix, and AIX.

"We're calling this an operating system because at a high level, an operating system does two things: It manages the hardware looking downward, and it provides interfaces or services with applications, looking upward," Balkansky said.

"An operating system typically is the mediator between applications and the hardware. Our technology is the first such software layer that installs on the bare metal. It provides two classes of services: A set of services to manage the hardware -- the servers, the storage and the network -- and a set of application services to provide availability, security and scalability to applications."

VMware designed vSphere 4 to be a non-disruptive force in the data center, Balkansky said. It works with virtually all other data center systems and is designed to slip into its own layer without disrupting workflows.

Missing Pieces Now Are Plugged In

Bryan Doerr, CTO of IT infrastructure-as-a-service provider Savvis, said that the new VMware release plugs in some missing pieces in the current virtualized computing structure.

"At the highest level, the virtualization of servers in the form of a hypervisor is already there," Doerr told eWEEK. "But as you dive down though and get into the details of building enterprise grade cloud services, you start to see that VMware has plugged in new pieces that are going to be very enabling."

Two of these new pieces are the ability of vSphere to connect on demand for additional computing power from outside-the-cloud sources, plus much-improved fault tolerance capability.

"The previous version wasn't as rich and as complete for the breadth of application problem in the typical data center. This really helps companies like Savvis do its job in better fashion," Doerr said.

Savvis features secure data centers in prime locations, enterprise class server and storage platforms, fully managed network solutions, a portfolio of security tools, a suite of management tools, and a professional services team.

An avalanche of storage and data center-related companies in addition to Savvis also announced compatibility of their systems with vSphere 4. As of midday April 20, a partial list included NetApp, 3PAR, Uptime Software, StoneFly, Mellanox, and Reflex VMC.

Analyst 'Blown Away' by Demo

Lew Smith, an analyst and practice manager of virtualization solutions for Interphase Systems, a consulting service sprovider, told eWEEK that he was "blown away" by the demo he saw last week.

"Thanks to all the new partnerships VMware has made with external vendors  -- like the Savvises of the world -- vSphere can allow customers to federate with their clouds," Smith said. "So what this means is, when I'm running vSphere in my data center today, if I feel the need to 'burst' to an external cloud for additional processing power, I will now have the ability to reach out to one of these third parties and utilize resources within their data center.

"The only thing I'd have to work out, of course, is the connectivity, making sure I have the proper bandwidth in my cloud, et cetera. That's a huge benefit."

Smith said vSphere 4 is basically the ESX 3.5 server with "many more updates to it."

"I'm not trying to over-simplify vSphere, but during some conversations I had with customers there was some confusion about what vSphere would actually be. For all intents and purposes, vSphere is that next iteration of ESX Server," Smith said.

Smith said he thought the most compelling new feature is its fault-tolerance capacity.

"Fault-tolerance gives me the ability to run a shadow copy of an existing virtual machine on another host within my cloud or data center," Smith said.

"So if my primary host fails, I can immediately, seamlessly, without any impact to my business, fail over to that secondary shadow copy. That now becomes my primary, and vSphere will now spin up another shadow copy on another host."

So, for all intents and purposes, users are constantly running two copies of the workload -- but only one live copy of that virtual machine, Smith said.

vSphere 4 will be available in the second quarter in six editions, starting at $995 for three physical servers for small offices. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to add reaction from industry partners and analysts.

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