VMware's vSphere brings storage flexibility, greater speed to SaaS provider

The real-world benefits in the over-hauled virtualization software

When VMware launched its latest virtualization platform, vSphere, it introduced the phrase "cloud operating system" to the IT industry.

The terminology may seem like a marketing gimmick, but there are real-world benefits in the over-hauled virtualization software, as one early user of vSphere has found. Officials at TradeBeam, a software-as-a-service provider of supply-chain management services, say they have seen dramatically faster I/O throughput and been simplified the mapping of virtual machines to storage simply by upgrading from the previous VMware platform to vSphere.

With the prior version, VMware Infrastructure 3.5, it was easy to move virtual machines from one physical server to another, but difficult to move virtual machines from one storage box to another, says Nasser Mirzai, vice president of IT at TradeBeam in San Mateo, Calif.

VSphere automates that process, which comes in handy when a TradeBeam customer needs to move to a bigger storage system or is moved from a storage box built by one vendor to one built by another.

"I can keep virtual servers intact, and map them to another physical storage without bringing down the systems or rebuilding the environment," Mirzai says. "We could have done that in the past [with version 3.5] but it wasn't as easy."

The key features are Storage vMotion, or live migration of virtual machine disk files across different storage arrays; and thin provisioning, which allows over-allocation of storage capacity.

At Tradebeam, new flexibility with storage also helps prevent wasted disk space, Mirzai says. In the past Mirzai might have set aside 200GB for a customer based upon potential needs, but if it turned out the customer only used 50GB then the rest would be wasted for months.

According to VMware, vSphere has doubled the processors available to VMs, more than doubled the network interface cards available to VMs, quadrupled memory, tripled network throughput, and doubled maximum I/O operations per second to more than 200,000.

TradeBeam began using beta versions of vSphere in November, and started to deploy the technology in production two months ago.

The I/O performance is one of the keys for Mirzai, who credits vSphere with speeding up the connections between virtualized applications and storage. Virtual machine density has also increased, he says. TradeBeam, which mainly uses Linux with HP and Dell servers, can now host up to 12 virtual machines on each server, a couple more than was possible before, he says.

VMware calls its new platform a "cloud operating system" because it is designed to aggregate all the virtualized x86 components of the data center, creating a single computing pool consisting of processing, storage, memory and networking equipment.

Mirzai says he hasn't tapped the full potential of this aggregating of resources yet as TradeBeam is early in its deployment. But he doesn't totally buy all the cloud marketing hype.

"I myself was addicted to 'grid,' " Mirzai says. "When you look at cloud, the definition still depends on who you ask. To me, cloud isn't a new thing. It's been there since ADP [the payroll services company]." Even mainframes have some cloud-like qualities, Mirzai says.

But he doesn't blame VMware for calling itself a cloud provider. "I would use the same terminology if I was VMware, because cloud is getting a lot more attention," he says.

Going forward, Mirzai says he hopes VMware takes the lead in building standard definitions and protocols the industry can get behind, so that virtual machines are easily transportable from one vendor environment to another.So far, VMware has declined to support competing virtualization products from vendors such as Microsoft and Citrix.

Mirzai says VMware might benefit from common virtualization standards, if they make it easier for customers of other vendors to switch to VMware. But for himself, he wonders if it would be difficult to move from VMware to another vendor if a better platform emerges in a few years.

"I don't think it's affecting us today," Mirzai says. "But there's always that concern of what if I want to migrate from VMware to another vendor a few years from today? Am I easily able to transport to one environment from another, or do I have to build a whole new [virtual] environment?"

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