With the release today of the vSphere 5.1 virtualization platform VMware shows that it remains the pacesetter in data center virtualization. One year after the release of version 5.0, vSphere 5.1 is outfitted with new features that significantly improve how the product will work in small and midsized IT shops while continuing to provide industry-leading enhancements for capabilities that are used by enterprises of all sizes.
VMware also changed how it charges for the platform. As announced at VMworld last month, the vRAM pricing model that was introduced just one year ago with version 5.0, has been scraped and the product is now sold on a per-CPU socket model. There are a wide range of vSphere editions. Representative price points range from the Standard license that lists for $995, Enterprise at $2,875 and Enterprise plus at $3,495. vSphere is also available as part of the new vCloud Suite. The suite list prices range from $4,995 to $11,495. A direct comparison to competing products (basically Windows Server with Hyper-V plus a variety of Microsoft System Center products) puts VMware’s class-leading platform at the premium end of the virtualization scale.
A new Web-based client, automatic deployment features and replication capabilities that don’t require a shared storage array all bolster vSphere 5.1 when compared with Microsoft Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V. Increased virtual machine CPU and memory limits, an enhanced virtual switch and significant improvements in virtual machine tools-along with a host of other features should be welcome additions for large data center operators.
There are competitive alternatives that IT managers should compare when looking at a virtualization platform. Based on my work with Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V and with the release candidate version of Server 2012, which was finalized and shipped last week, IT shops still likely have enough reason to consider the VMware competitors. For shops that already use Windows Server and Microsoft System Center tools, Hyper-V is still initially easier to turn on and slipstream into use when compared with a full-blown VMware installation. I looked at Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization 3.0 earlier this year and found that it was worthy of consideration, and not just for its lower licensing cost.
vSphere 5.1’s beefed up capabilities also raises the stakes for IT managers as the platform further agglomerates data center functions. As with Microsoft and even Red Hat virtualization platforms, IT managers who adopt VMware vSphere 5.1 should now also plan for “retooling” their IT workforce with the skills needed to take advantage of the increased data center virtualization.
Nearly every vSphere enhancement that I tested required me to architect and integrate new areas of the Labs infrastructure to an extent not previously seen. As just one example showed me, regardless of whether IT managers stick with the newly enhanced vSphere Distributed Switch or substitute in a Cisco Nexus 1000V, this latest version of vSphere will challenge existing IT staff to bring their “A” game when it comes to implementing vSphere 5.1.
I tested vSphere 5.1 by installing the VMware ESXi hypervisor on the latest release of the Dell PowerEdge R720 and a HP DL380 Gen8 server, both equipped with Intel Xeon E5-2600 series processors, an HP DL380 and HP DL360 sixth-generation servers with previous-generation Intel Xeon Nahalem processors, along with a Lenovo RD210 server. I used the VMware vSphere Distributed Switch for my networking infrastructure and an OpenFiler iSCSI storage management system.
When I reviewed the vSphere 5.0 release last year, I said that the release set the stage for “giant VMs.” Microsoft and VMware continue to increase virtual machine maximums that seem almost laughably large. vSphere 5.1 VMs can now contain up to 64 virtual CPUs and have up to 1 terabyte of virtual RAM. While these large numbers are impressive-and roughly on par among virtualization competitors-they also pale in significance when compared with the other improvements that were made to the underlying platform.
One of the biggest changes that IT administrators will notice first and work with daily is the new vSphere Web Client, which for all intents and purposes is designed to replace the previous Windows-based client. IT staff who prefer to use Linux or Mac desktops will rejoice as VMware makes this switch from the Windows client to one that is officially supported on either Internet Explorer or Firefox browser. For VMware veterans, the transition to accessing the VMware vCenter Server will take some getting used to. The 5.1 Web client adds functionality, including tagging that I found took some getting used to. Once I got used to the new layout, search and the new custom tagging (which I’m sure I’ll find a use for in the not-too-distant future), the new Web client proved to be a worthy successor to the Windows client.
VMware Says the Next Time I Upgrade My Environment, I Wont Have to Restart My Systems Afterward
For my tests, I installed a completely new vSphere 5.1 infrastructure. I created new VMs and then installed the new version of VMware Tools on these systems. According to VMware, the next time I upgrade my environment, I won’t have to restart my systems after upgrading the tools. This is a significant improvement, and I look forward to seeing this proved in action at the next release.
Another big addition to vSphere 5.1 is single sign-on. Technically, implementing VMware single sign-on (SSO) wasn’t significantly more difficult than getting other SSO platforms up and running. All these systems require finicky integration with existing directories. And like many other VMware vSphere 5.1 components, IT mangers should spend far more time understanding how SSO can work in a vSphere environment and planning the policies around SSO and identity management than is spent actually implementing the functionality. In my tests with a very small user data store, I was able to instantiate the SSO feature in a relatively short time. Once it was up and running, it was convenient to be able to move around my virtual infrastructure without having to repeatedly log in.
I used features that are available in the small and midsize business (SMB) vSphere Essentials Plus edition, including vSphere Replication and vShield Endpoint security. These features will likely appeal to organizations that have limited IT staff but would like an alternative to Microsoft Windows Server with Hyper-V. In particular, I used the vSphere Replication feature to move VMs within my test cluster without using my shared storage array. vSphere Replication provides “good enough” VM protection with a minimum 15-minute recovery point. Enterprise users or anyone needing iron-clad disaster recovery should consider vSphere Site Recovery Manager (reviewed here) in which replication can be nearly real-time, with a corresponding increase in equipment and license costs.
The vSphere Distributed Switch (VDS) got a real facelift in this version of vSphere 5.1. After setting up my test infrastructure, I was able to use the vSphere Web Client to back up my VDS, a new feature in 5.1. I was able to use the related rollback and recovery feature in this version of VDS to more confidently make changes to a working switch configuration. This was a real advantage in testing since I was able to more freely experiment with other new features, including using the SPAN port mirroring feature to try encapsulated SPAN and remote SPAN port to monitor my test network. For the same reason, IT managers will likely find it less nerve-wracking to make switch adjustments knowing that it is simple to restore to a known working state.