VMworld: Day one roundup

ZDNet UK assesses the state of the virtualisation market at VMware's Los Angeles gathering, where virtual applications are all the rage
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

For things that have no physical existence, virtual applications (VAs) are big and getting much, much bigger. With Microsoft announcing that it will ship demonstration VAs with SQL Server and Exchange running on virtual systems, and BEA saying that it will be revealing details of bundling the operating system in with the application at its user conference in Beijing in December, the idea of bundling a complete virtual setup capable of running a particular application on a virtual machine is catching on.

VMware says that it has 330 VAs available for free on its website, with one being downloaded every minute. Zeus says that by shipping applications as VAs it can cut down on support costs, speed the evaluation time by clients, and bypass a lot of the expense those clients have with hardware inventory management.

To further invigorate development, VMware has updated its VMware Technology Network site to include the Virtual Appliance Marketplace. This adds certification and purchasing to the site, with the company taking a small percentage of sales revenue.

Another big theme of the day has been power management. California-based utility Pacific Gas and Electric announced a scheme to reward customers who embraced virtualisation. "We'll give our customers a cheque for every server they unplug," said PG&E director Roland Risser.

Risser explained that it was cheaper for his company to reduce demand rather than build new generator capacity, and that increased energy efficiency was the most effective way to reduce emissions. He said that up to $1,350 (£708) per server was available in rebates, up to a cap of $4m per customer. This figure includes money for the servers themselves plus the drop in energy use due to reduced cooling requirements.

VMware itself provided figures of $250 a year — or 3,000kWh — saved for each server virtualised in server power costs, with a further $310 — 3,800kWh — removed in cooling costs. These are conservative figures, says the company: it quoted customer Covenant Health which claimed a reduction in annual power costs from $43,000 (£22,500) to $3,000 due entirely to virtualising older systems on new platforms.

Virtualisation showcase
Several interesting products were shown off during the day, too, both by VMware and by partners.

VMware's Lab Manager was launched on Monday and had its first public outing. This is a set of services managed by a web interface designed to automate a number of the harder problems confronting applications developers within large enterprises. Modern applications are built on top of a number of interacting, complex services usually running on their own servers: the configuration of these services changes between each stage of enterprise software development. At the moment, developers ask IT for one mix of servers, the test labs ask for another and deployment needs yet another.

Also, it is very difficult for testers to deliver exactly the right conditions to developers to replicate any bugs they find. It's far from uncommon for a bug found during testing to be impossible to repeat by the developers — so it goes unfixed until it surfaces when the system goes live.

Lab Manager adds a set of agents to a collection of virtual machines. The Lab Manager application itself collates these agents: when a developer or a tester wants a set of servers to create the right environment for a task, they can ask the Lab Manager to deliver them. The virtual machines wake up or boot up, and their consoles appear...

... in a single browser window. Without Lab Manager, says VMware, the task of provisioning physical servers takes a long time, is expensive and a bad use of IT resources. With it, it takes between seconds and minutes and needs no manual intervention except from the person requesting the resources.

At any point, the user can snapshot the state of the complete set of servers, and the system then creates a URL which refers to that unique instance. This can then be handed to a different part of the development team, which will pick things up at exactly the point and in exactly the condition when the incident of interest occurred. This alone, says VMware, enables efficient complex debugging of problems by teams spread across the world.

InovaWave's DXtreme for Windows is a performance enhancer for virtual machines that lets you increase the number of virtual machines supported on a system, or leave the number unchanged but increase the performance. The company is a little coy about exactly how it does it, but it provides each virtual machine with its own dedicated virtual IO channel — as opposed to having the hypervisor manage all the IO. The company claims that a 250 percent improvement in performance is possible, or 50 percent more virtual machines.

We saw it running on a credible demonstration, and it did indeed improve performance on a variety of IO-intensive tasks by more than 100 percent — however, it also increased CPU usage by a factor of at least 50.

Dave McCrory, chief technical officer and co-founder of the company, says that DXtreme relies on having a connection to a physical hard disk on the server — it won't provide any benefits to network attached storage — but it uses heuristic algorithms to spot patterns that let it speed up even apparently random IO by huge factors. He also said that the technology will continue to outperform other virtual IO even when processors start to include native support — due around 2008.

HP was quietly showing off some benchmark figures for an 80-user system based on thin client, XP and VMware ESX Server 3.0. Each user had an HP Windows CE-based thin-client box, connected to a dual-processor, dual-core Intel-based DL380G5 server, with its own XP image including Microsoft Office 2003 and Norton Anti-Virus Corporate Edition. The server had 16GB of DDR2 memory, and there were 23 72GB SAS drives for a total of 1.7TB of storage.

When running the Gartner Knowledge Worker script, HP claims, 95 percent of task response times came in at under 50 milliseconds — in other words, well within the speed at which responses are perceived as lagging. The whole system was priced at $118,403 — $809 server and $670 client per user — and took 1,720 watts.

Amid the large numbers of virtual machine management, performance tuning, backup and physical-to-virtual products, a small consumer sector is beginning to emerge. Moka5 is packaging up virtual appliances in a format called LivePC that can be carried on iPods and USB thumb drives, and encouraging users to create their own and share them via the company's website.

The idea is to create a self-contained environment with all the bits and pieces a consumer might want to carry with them, and to safely use whatever host computers they come across on their travels. This is quite similar conceptually to VMware's own ACE product, which bundles up secure, managed virtual machines for corporate deployment on untrusted systems — typically, an employee's home PC or a contractor's laptop — but Moka5 actually streams the virtual machine itself to the user wherever they are.

"VMware can't do that," Kelvin Yue, Director of Engineering at Moka5 told ZDNet UK. "Every ACE installation has to carry the full VM with it. We send the VM to the user whenever they plug their LivePC drives into a host".

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