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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Software Product of the Year: VMware

In my opinion, the most impressive software product of the last three years is VMware. Starting in 2006, gaining speed in 2007 and consolidating its base in 2008, VMware has taken the software industry by storm and created a whole new set of standards and expectations for enterprise computing. Besides having a major effect on data centers, VMware is also significantly changing the computing landscape for power users and small business system integrators like Berkeley Logic.

Based in Palo Alto, California, VMware offers a line of products and services based on a computing principal now known as virtualization. Virtualization refers to the concept of running an entire computer operating system on top of a hardware platform that exists entirely in software.

Virtualization works by using a hypervisor to delve out virtual machines that run each instance of an operating system. The hypervisor is a master program that runs on top the bare metal of a computer or it may be integrated into a host operating system like Windows Server or Linux. The hypervisor uses hardware-specific drivers to create generic versions of the hard disk, network and display drivers. This works by the hypervisor emulating standard devices like an Intel CPU, an Adaptec SCSI controller, a Marvell network card, and a generic SVGA controller. With this capability one may create virtual machines running any Intel-compatible operating system.

What this means is that any Intel-based Windows, Linux or Mac server or PC can now run a copy of any other Intel-based operating system. For example, if I have a MacBook laptop and I need to run an application that depends on Internet Explorer 7, I can install Windows XP SP2 into a virtual machine on my MacBook and run it in a window in the Mac OS X Finder.

Only recently have PCs had the power to effectively run virtual machines. The trend towards multiple CPUs per chip, such as the Intel Core architecture, has truly unleashed virtualization technology. Virtualization, after all, has been around for decades. It got its start with IBM timesharing mainframes in the 1960's. But, the trend towards using multi-core CPUs to increase CPU power now makes it possible to cram the equivalent of 16 CPUs into just a couple of server slots.

It is in the server room that VMware is making its big impact. Let's say I'm the CIO for a big university and I have half a dozen big data centers scattered across a metropolitan area. There might be hundreds of server boxes in those data centers that are running a single OS on three to five year-old hardware platforms. With VMware's more advanced products I can take those old boxes, boot them with a special CD, and then suck the boot drive off of that box into a new VMware server. My new VMware server will be a super-tricked out 8-core box hooked into my new 3Tb SAS iSCSI SAN. I can probably cram up to 50 of those old servers into my new VMware hypervisor box, especially if those old servers were lightly used.

The impact of VMware in the data center is why I am saying that it is my "product of the year" for 2006, 2007 and 2008. VMware has actually been riding this wave quite effectively for the last three years. Selling all of the advanced hypervisors, management tools and consulting services propelled VMware into a partial buyout with global storage leader EMC and an IPO in 2007. Clearly VMware is here to stay and every enterprise IT guy better know all about it in order to keep competitive.

VMware plays a pretty big role here Berkeley Logic. We use the free version of VMware's hypervisor (VMware Server) running on an 8-core Dell PowerEdge 1950 Windows 2003 Server box with a nice 143 Gb 10,000 RPM SAS RAID1 array. The server is hosted at LMi.net data center and connected directly to the Internet. We are running three VMware virtual machines. One is running Fedora 7 with Best Practical's RT3 request tracking system. Another virtual machine runs Fedora 8 with Nagios to do active system monitoring. And, a third machine runs Ubuntu Gusty Gibbon as our LAMP development server. We basically have a nice set of Linux servers plus a Windows 2003 server host all running on a single box.

I have also used the VMware Converter utility to save defunct workstations. In one case I had a manager workstation that had a server program installed on it. The workstation had to be up and running in order for the server application to work properly. If the server app wasn't up, workers couldn't do their inventory work properly. Well, it was finally time to upgrade this old workstation and we didn't have the installation programs needed to re-create the server application.

VMware Converter saved the day here. We installed the converter and attached a portable USB drive to the old workstation. The converter runs while the workstation is up and running. It creates the virtual machine disk files on the external drive. This can take up to three hours depending on the size of the disk an the speed of the old system.

After the converter spools the virtual machine on the external drive it is moved to one of our multi-core servers with VMware Server already installed. The virtual machine disk files are copied from the external drive to a drive on the server. Using the VMware console we then were able to launch the virtual machine, get access to the Windows desktop and launch the server application.

Now that the old workstation is saved as a virtual machine the legacy software installation is permanently archived. We don't need to find that old consultant with his weird installation disks, and the end user doesn't have to keep his workstation on to make a server app work. And, we did it all with the free versions of VMware products.

There is a ton more to say about VMware. There are some inherent advantages for backup and reliability, for example. And, it is probably the most significant thing IT people can do to save on all that electrical power spent on running old servers. Plus, VMware isn't the only kid on the virtualization block. There's VirtualIron, Xen is now built right into Fedora 8, and a version of Windows Server 2008 will have a hypervisor built in too. There are caveats, of course. Getting your software licenses set up correctly can be a pain sometimes.

I'll try to wrap it up by saying as VMware has revolutionized how to deal with old servers and make a data center much more efficient, it has also made a big impact in the day-to-day lives of small business computer users. VMware has been building momentum for years, and 2008 looks to be another year of continued growth for the company as it continues to make significant contributions to IT capabilities and efficiency.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Microsoft's Vista Problem

Microsoft has a big problem with Windows Vista. We are into the second year of the newest version of Windows and new computer buyers are still yearning for the older, circa 2003, Windows XP.

I think I actually understand what Microsoft might have been thinking when they delivered a new OS that was horribly slow on most PCs shipping in January 2007. Vista needed to stay viable for at least four or five years, and it was overbuilt for 2007 PCs. It looks like Microsoft engineers were trying to anticipate what a new PC would be like in 2010. It will be nice in two or three years when quad cores and solid state drives are common, but right now one needs a pretty expensive system to get Vista to run smoothly.

Another big problem with Vista is that it had bugs and performance issues that are only now being resolved with the SP1 update. While I think I understand why Vista is so mismatched with today's common hardware configurations, I am sadly dismayed that Microsoft is still using the computing public as extended beta testers for their code. Back when Windows 2000 came out and worked pretty good with the first version, I had begun to assume that Microsoft was getting better with their quality in new OS shipments. But, Windows XP needed two service packs to solve some major security problems, and now the Vista SP1 debacle exhibits a pattern where Microsoft is getting worse with their new OS quality assurance.

Finally, perhaps because of the bloated overhead and the buggy first release, many vertical industry software vendors have yet to support Vista and are advising their clients to only use Windows XP as the only supported client operating system.

Dell, HP and others still ship new PCs with Windows XP. Microsoft will supposedly terminate the OEM's ability to pre-install XP in June 2008. What will Microsoft do? What should a technology partner like Berkeley Logic tell its customers?

Well, there certainly isn't a clear answer here. The pressure on Microsoft to extend the XP deadline is intense, and it is my guess that they will extend it to December 2008. However, I would still encourage any client who needs to do a multi-unit computer upgrade to consider getting their orders in before May 15 just in case Microsoft pulls the plug.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Apple Customer Service, Part 2

At nearly the same time my iPhone flew out of my pocket and was shattered, I noticed that my sleek black MacBook had a new physical defect! The top of the computer that covers the keyboard and includes the touchpad was splintering right on the edge. It was where my right wrist rests while typing and is where the little bump on the screen hits the cover.

I was getting ready to glue it, but I peered into the new hole in the my MacBook's case and saw there wasn't anything to there to be a base for a glue job.

After my glorious iPhone customer service experience, I thought why not try the Genius Bar again? Even though my MacBook was about four months out of warranty I had high hopes.

Got there at 11:00 am on a Sunday morning just as they opened. I was first in line and my assigned Genius looked at my damage for about two seconds and then started looking for the right part in the inventory. They had it, and my computer was wisked into the back room for immediate surgery.

I asked how much, and my newest best friend looked up and said, "Oh that is free! It's a known defect. It will be ready in about 20 minutes. We'll call you on your cell phone when it's ready."

Wow. Kind of stunned, I strolled around the mall and bought a new pair of pants. While checking out my phone rang. The Apple store says my computer is ready. Perfect timing.

Another fantastic customer service experience.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Apple Customer Service, part 1

In just one week I had two Apple customer service "orgasms!" It was such a great experience I had to start this Berkeley Logic blog to share my wonderful experience.

It all started with my ringing iPhone being flung out of my pocket while riding my bike on rough asphalt! It hit the ground hard, but I picked it up and answered the call. The phone worked and I thought I had lucked out.

But, the next morning I saw there was a crack in the face of my iPhone! It went straight across the middle. After looking carefully I saw that the glass in one corner was shattered. Must have been where it hit...

I googled around and saw several posts from 2007 where people when into an Apple Store and a generous Genius Bar worker would replace the phone for free. Others said they had to pay $250 to get an in-warranty replacement. I decided to take my chances with the Emeryville Apple Store.

The next day I went in at 7:00 pm for my online-generated appointment. I saw my name on the monitor. At like 7:02 my name was called and my appointed Genius was a 20 something perky young man. With his soprano-pitched voice he asked what was up, and I just showed him the phone without speaking a word. I know, it was kind of sneaky!

The Apple Genius grabbed my iPhone and studied it. He looked up and said, "So when did you notice this?" What a perfect opening. Without hesitation, I said "This morning." He kept looking for about five seconds, and then said "OK, you're getting a new phone."

Wow! That was super cool. My new best friend kept looking at the phone and said "I see you've got an impact shattering here. I'll let you slide this time!" And, I didn't even have to feel guilty because he busted me and let me off!

I've been watching Apple for a long time, and it is amazing how they have evolved into the #1 model for creating a global brand and making the customer happy.