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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.

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