Review: VMware vSphere 5.1 looms large

VMware takes virtualization higher and deeper with rich storage automation and more advanced virtual networking tools

With the release of VMware vSphere 5.1, VMware's product line underwent some naming and positioning changes. In the past, there were two different bare-metal hypervisors, one free and one sold as part of the vSphere suite. Now there is just one. The new standard is ESXi 5.1, which still comes in a free version. However, the free version is now limited to 32GB of physical RAM.

The ESXi hypervisor is required for all vSphere installations starting with version 5.0. ESXi does not use Linux, as did ESX, for the service console that executed scripts and provided hooks for third-party agents. The new ESXi code base has shrunk, presenting a smaller attack surface and requiring less maintenance and patching. Higher reliability and stability in the hypervisor translate to fewer headaches for IT administrators and longer uptime for mission-critical applications.

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VMware has also introduced three different offerings under the label vCloud Suite, which include bundled products targeted at specific use cases. They are licensed on a per-CPU basis and come in Standard, Advanced, and Enterprise editions. These products provide the functionality to implement infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) clouds for large data centers or service providers. For this review I focused on the basic VMware vSphere functionality along with the VMware vCenter Server management system.

Installation and configurationFor the purpose of this review I used a Dell PowerEdge R715 server as the primary VMware ESXi host. Dell is a longtime VMware partner, and it has many convenient features, such as the ability to boot the base ESXi image from either an SD card or a USB disk. Dell provides this image on its website, and I used it to create a bootable USB device. Installing and configuring an ESXi host is pretty simple for most any supported hardware.

Configuring a vSphere environment is a different story. If you plan on using any of the more advanced features available from VMware, you will need to install vCenter Server. Here you have several options, such as using an existing Windows Server or deploying the vCenter Server as a virtual appliance (VA). The VA option uses Suse Linux as the base OS and a local database for small installations of less than 50 VMs. For larger installations you must use an external Oracle database. If you go the Windows Server route, you'll also need to have SQL Server installed to house the inventory database.

You must configure a separate network for all vMotion traffic before any virtual machine migrations can be accomplished. Each host participating in vMotion must have a minimum of two Ethernet adapters with at least one supporting Gigabit speeds. Each host must have a port group designated for vMotion traffic with source and destination hosts on the same subnet. That's quite a bit of configuration required to accomplish a migration -- especially when compared to Microsoft's Hyper-V live migration feature, which requires almost no configuration.

New and improved in vSphere 5.1VMware vSphere 5.1 brings a number of capabilities to the table specifically aimed at the high-end, high-volume virtualization customer. These include features like Storage DRS (Distributed Resource Scheduler), introduced in vSphere 5.0, which automates load balancing across storage devices just as DRS balances VM loads across hosts. With Profile-Driven Storage and tight integration with the new vCloud Director, you get a new level of storage automation not previously available.

With the vSphere 5.1 release also comes a new version of the virtual machine format (version 9) that supports larger virtual machines. Another nice enhancement means the end of reboots when upgrading VM guests to newer versions of the VMware Tools. On the networking front are enhancements to the VMware vSphere Distributed Switch (VDS) in support of link aggregation (LACP support) and expanded virtual MAC address assignments for large implementations. Other improvements to VDS beef up network monitoring and troubleshooting and even rollback and recovery.

In terms of raw scalability, vSphere 5.1 increases the number of distributed switches per vCenter Server from 32 to 128. It also ups the numbers on static port groups (5,000 to 10,000), distributed ports (30,000 to 60,000), and hosts per VDS (350 to 500).

Managing vSphere 5.1The traditional management tool, available as a free download, is the VMware vSphere Client. This option is being phased out with the new Web client available with version 5.1 of vCenter Server. In reality, there probably aren't many VMware installations of any size running without vCenter Server. At the lower end, Microsoft makes life easier, as you can manage small Hyper-V deployments with Hyper-V Manager and the new Windows Server Manager tool. (See my review of Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V.)

That said, VMware's vCenter Server provides the glue that holds large VM deployments together. It's required for many of VMware's advanced features such as the cloning or migrating of VMs. With the new Web client you can easily perform almost any task required to manage your entire vSphere infrastructure. With VMware vSphere PowerCLI, you get the full scripting capability of PowerShell and more than 370 cmdlets to automate almost any repetitive task you need to accomplish in day-to-day operations.

Performance and scaleWhen you look at vSphere 5.1 from a big-picture perspective, you see a number of enhanced capabilities that directly affect performance. Storage is a key part of the VM puzzle, and the enhancements in vSphere 5.1 for vMotion deliver new capabilities such as using multiple NICs. Using the right type of storage for different workloads can have a significant impact on overall performance as well. vSphere 5.1 supports automated storage management to include different classes of service, allowing you to direct high-IOPS workloads to more expensive SSD storage while allocating lower-cost storage to lower-throughput needs.

Performance and scalability both depend on efficient usage of other resources like network bandwidth and CPU. VMware provides granular control over all of the above, making it easy to implement the likes of Quality of Service (QoS) for the network and limit CPU resources based on service-level agreements. While these considerations are not always part of the performance discussion, they influence how a virtual environment performs overall -- VMware delivers these features in spades.

Final analysis VMware continues to deliver features and enhancements that make vSphere the obvious choice for any large-scale virtualization deployment. The new vCloud suites bundle together previously separate pieces required for building a large-scale private, public, or hybrid cloud. While Microsoft Hyper-V 2012 and other solutions may be chipping away at VMware's lead, vSphere still has a number of features -- such as rules-based load balancing for VMs and storage, as well as advanced virtual networking capabilities -- that the competition can't match. These features will certainly make a difference in large settings, and some will make a difference in smaller shops with more complex needs.

This article, "Review: VMware vSphere 5.1 looms large," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in virtualization, data center, and cloud computing at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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This story, "Review: VMware vSphere 5.1 looms large" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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