VMware VI3 Improves the Virtual Environment

Review: VMware enhances its VI platform, but there are some disappointments.

The latest iteration of VMware's Virtual Infrastructure, the server virtualization platform comprising ESX Server 3.5 and Virtual-Center 2.5, boasts a set of hardware support enhancements, scalability improvements and new automation provisions that stand to enforce the popularity of VMware's already market-leading virtualization offering.

VMware has taken impressive steps toward broadening the range of equipment that ESX Server is capable of embracing into companies' enterprise virtualization infrastructures, adding support, for instance, for the TSO (TCP Segmentation Offload) capabilities of certain network adapters and for SATA (Serial ATA) drives as local host storage.

What's more, VirtualCenter 2.5 now sports a Consolidation feature that's intended to help small and midsize businesses move workloads from physical systems that use a Windows operating system to virtual machines.

In eWeek Labs' tests of the ESX Server 3.5 and VirtualCenter 2.5 duo, which began shipping in December, we were able to use the product's new Consolidation feature to identify, analyze and eventually migrate physical machines to virtual instances. However, the Consolidation tool hasn't yet reached the sort of polished operation that we're accustomed to seeing from VMware.

In addition, we were disappointed to find that VMware's operating system support for its Virtual Infrastructure client software has continued to shrink. When we reviewed VMware's VI3 last year, we were annoyed to find that VI3 administration (apart from a feature-incomplete Web interface) was a Windows-only affair. This time around, VMware has slipped further backward by axing-at least temporarily-support for 64-bit versions of Windows. According to a post we found on one of VMware's message boards, a fix for the 64-bit Windows issue is on tap for some time in the second half of this year.

Shrinking client support aside, VMware Virtual Infrastructure is an excellent server virtualization product, which offers organizations a solid foundation on which to realize their high-utilization, high-availability server infrastructure goals.

Based on the current virtualization product landscape, you're unlikely to get fired for buying VMware, but there's no shortage of competing products for the administrator looking to virtualize his or her x86- or x86-64-based infrastructure. Before committing to VMware's wares, we suggest that you investigate the crop of Xen-based offerings from Citrix Systems, Virtual Iron and 3Tera, as well as from operating system vendors such as Red Hat and Novell. In addition, Sun Microsystems has its own Xen-centered solution on the way in the form of xVM, and we've been impressed with the still-beta Hyper-V technology that Microsoft has begun shipping alongside Windows Server 2008.

VMware sells its Virtual Infrastructure product package in three different editions. VI3 Foundation (previously known as Starter) costs $1,000 per pair of CPU sockets and comes with a Virtual-Center license, Consolidated Backup functionality and VMware's new Update Manager utility.

VI3 Standard Edition adds support for automatic migration of VMs between nodes in case of host failure and costs about $3,000 per CPU socket pair.

VI3 Enterprise Edition costs $5,750 per pair of CPU sockets and adds support for VMotion live migration, VMware's Distributed Resource Scheduler and VMware's new Storage VMotion functionality.

VMware is also making its hypervisor available in a hardware-integrated edition that ships with particular server machines. This new version, which VMware calls ESX Server 3i, has not yet begun shipping on OEM machines, but we look forward to testing it once it does.

We conducted the bulk of our testing on a pair of IBM eServer 325 servers, each of which was outfitted with dual 1,595MHz Advanced Micro Devices Opteron processors and 2GB of RAM. One of the IBM servers on which we tested had been running ESX Server 3.0.1, and we were able to update this server to ESX Version 3.5 without a hitch. On the second server, we installed ESX from scratch.

For shared storage-a must considering that our eServers lacked SCSI drives-we turned to the same sort of home-brewed iSCSI SAN that powered our tests of VI3 last year. As in those tests, our iSCSI box-based on the open-source OpenFiler Project-served us well enough to put ESX Server 3.5 through its paces and to host an assortment of Windows XP, Vista, Server 2003 and 2008 VMs, as well as a group of Debian GNU/Linux and rPath software appliances.