VMware Launches Software-Defined Data Center Tools

VMware adds tools to virtualize networking and storage resources this week at VMworld as customers debate its approach to hybrid clouds.

Charles Babcock

August 24, 2013

8 Min Read
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VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

VMware will attempt to push the software-defined data center out of the realm of abstract conception and move it multiple steps closer to reality with two new products the company will announce at VMworld in San Francisco this week.

The first new product is the NSX platform for virtualized networking that moves network configuration and provisioning into a software-defined process that takes place as a virtual machine is configured. The second is Virtual SAN, which gives VMware's vSphere management system the ability to pool local attached storage on servers and treat them as a single, flexible resource. Under Virtual SAN, storage can scale out to meet the needs of each running application and track it around the data center as its virtual machine moves from one location to another.

In addition, Virtual SAN for the first time incorporates flash into the same storage pool as server disks and allows the virtualization administrator to make use of the characteristics of each type of storage in a way that works best for the virtual machine workload.

The use of solid state disks is still new in the field of virtualization but it is likely to have a big impact. Asked for his best measure of that impact, Scott Shadley, business development manager for Micron, said in a separate interview independent of VMware that the addition of a single PCI Express (PCIe) flash card to a server slot allowed the number of virtualized desktops handled to jump from 50 to 500. Solid state storage is particularly helpful where the infrastructure is trying to manage intense I/O, he said. Micron sells PCIe cards for $5,000.

[ Learn more about the challenge that confronts VMware at VMworld. Read 4 Things VMware Must Do At VMworld. ]

VMware's annual VMworld user conference is now 10 years old and marks "the third generation in IT, the mobile/cloud era," John Gilmartin, the company's VP of cloud infrastructure, said in an interview before the opening of the show. VMworld is expected to register between 21,000 and 22,000 attendees. The conclave occurs as Wall Street analysts and critics have placed an increasing burden on VMware management to explain how their company will fare in the face of commodity competition from Microsoft's Hyper-V, part of Windows Servers. VMware is also feeling increased heat from low-cost cloud computing services, such as Amazon Web Services. CEO Pat Gelsinger and COO Carl Eschenbach are expected to supply some answers as they give keynote speeches at the event on Monday and Tuesday.

A particular area of focus will be virtualized networking. VMware is no stranger to the subject, having invented a virtual switch and embedded it in its ESX Server hypervisor. It added the distributed virtualized switch in software, which was duplicated in hardware by HP, Cisco and other networking vendors, speeding up operations for large numbers of virtual machines.

When VMware bought Nicira in July 2012, it moved squarely into software-defined networking, a field that still threatens to overturn the fixed routes and inflexible configurations of spanning tree-based networks already in place. The spanning tree protocol mathematically calculates best routes based on network traffic, then locks them in place with switch and router configurations. Software-defined networking would allow routes to be set under one set of network circumstances, and then reset later when those conditions change.

Gilmartin said the new NSX network virtualization platform is the culmination of the company's experience in hypervisor virtual switching, distributed switching and Nicira's work, which came with a $1.26 billion price tag. NSX will be generally available in the fourth quarter. VMware is also capitalizing on the networking work done by the OpenStack project, for which Nicira engineers remain significant contributors. (OpenStack networking, previously known as Quantum, was renamed Neutron earlier this year.)

With NSX, the virtual network will be built and configured at the same time as the virtual machine. Until now, the network part of a virtual server had to follow up its creation, usually with manual intervention if any special characteristics were required.

"Manually intensive configuration slows down deployments. You can't realize the full effect of virtualization without the networking piece," said Gilmartin. At VMworld, 20 networking partners are expected to announce they have products that support NSX, he said.

In a similar vein, the addition of Virtual SAN to VMware's product line allows storage to be configured with the creation of the virtual machine, then reconfigured or moved around as necessary. Virtual SAN's ability to see all the hard drives on a virtualized server cluster along with all the SSD devices means virtual operations can use flash "for read/write operations, and hard drives for storage. It gives us the performance of flash, with the economics of hard drives," Gilmartin said.

Virtual SAN provides a means for policies to be set and govern the creation of storage allotments. Those policies are entered and applied through the vCenter management console. No date was announced when Virtual SAN will become generally available but a beta version will be available in the third quarter.

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The two additions to the product line still leave VMware well short of the software-defined data center. But they automate crucial steps in virtual machine creation and operation. When combined with other additions, such as the recently announced vCenter Log Insight, which gathers operational stats out of server log files for analysis, the building blocks of automated operations are starting to fall into place.

In addition, VMware has doubled the capacity of its latest version of vSphere to manage the environment. VSphere 5.5 will be introduced Monday with an ability to manage 320 instead of 160 CPU cores. In vSphere parlance, a modern Xeon physical core is seen as two logical CPUs because Xeon is now multi-threaded. In the past, 160 physical cores were also 160 logical cores, in vSphere's view. Now the number of logical units has doubled. So a server CPU with four cores represents eight CPUs for vSphere to work with.

Those logical CPUs can and likely will be further divided up. A host server with four cores and eight logical CPUs could be running 16 or 32 virtual machines, each assigned its own virtual CPU or a fraction of a logical CPU. So the number of virtual CPUs that vSphere 5.5 can manage has been double from 2,048 to 4,096.

The amount of RAM that it can manage has increased from two TBs to four TBs.

VSphere 5.5 has been enhanced in several other ways:

-- It now supports Intel's Atom Processor C2000 used in mobile devices as well as the x86 instruction set Xeon.

-- With Big Data Extensions, vSphere 5.5 can run a virtualized cluster that hosts Hadoop big data handling, then reverts to more typical virtualized workloads when Hadoop is no longer needed. The extensions are the result of VMware's sponsored open source project, Serengeti, launched last October, to put Hadoop on a virtualized cluster but allow the cluster to run a mix of tasks.

-- Another addition is vSphere App HA or high availability; in the past, VMware system management could detect when a major component of the infrastructure was no longer running but it couldn't specifically spot the application. Now it can tell if the virtual machine must recover from application or operating system failure.

-- An SSD feature has been added to vSphere 5.5, Flash Read Cache, to virtualize any Flash storage found on the server cluster.

The new version of vSphere is part of VMware's cloud software, the vCloud Suite 5.5. In addition, two other products are now part of the suite, vCloud Automation Center, which provisions compute, networking and storage as cloud services; and vCenter Operations Management, which combines virtual machine configuration management, performance management and capacity management. Both used to be stand-alone products.

The vCloud Suite comes in three versions, and only parts of vCloud Automation and vCenter Operations are included in the Standard edition; more parts are included in the Advanced edition and all parts are included in the Enterprise edition.

Hybrid cloud computing is a concern of the VMware customer base that VMware will again address at this year's VMworld. A hybrid operation takes some workloads in the on-premises data center and moves them out into a public cloud as an extension of the enterprise compute operation. VMware is saying that doing so to public cloud services that it will establish will allow customers to manage them through the familiar vCenter management console.

VMware is thus trying to make vCloud, its cloud-ified version of vSphere, useful as the basis for in-house, private cloud operations. That would include end user self-provisioning, automated elasticity where the resource can expand or contract with the needs of the workload, and automated chargeback based on hourly use.

If VMware can get its customers to buy into its view of the software-defined data center, it will have a better springboard from which to carry them and its product line into the public phase of hybrid operations.

Much more on that topic is expected during this year's VMworld. Wall Street's assessment, as various analysts downgraded VMware stock, is that VMware is losing out to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft when it comes to cloud.

But some analysts thought otherwise as VMware reported a better than expected second quarter in late July. Nomura, which recently downgraded Microsoft, upgraded VMware at the end of the month, as did Raymond James. Jefferies & Co. analyst Ross MacMillan noted the vCloud Suite's contribution to the second quarter and upgraded his VMware recommendation to Buy, on Aug. 23, as noted in Barron's Tech Trader column. He said he thinks it will post 16% license revenue growth in 2014, compared to the consensus of 11%. VMware's stock rose 2.7% Friday to $87.80.

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