• United States

Stopping Intel sprawl

Jul 21, 20037 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsIBMMicrosoft

VMware lets users consolidate proliferating boxes.

In addition to products from big-name companies such as HP, IBM, Microsoft and Sun, VMware this week is expected to update its server virtualization software for Intel-based servers.

With an eye toward helping customers save money by consolidating servers, applications and operating systems , a host of vendors are offering systems that combine multiple servers and storage systems into pools of computing power that grow and shrink in response to business demands – a concept known as virtualization.

In addition to products from big-name companies such as HP, IBM, Microsoft and Sun, VMware  this week is expected to update its server virtualization software for Intel-based servers.

IBM next year plans to add virtualization support to its pSeries and iSeries servers to help users carve up pieces of CPUs, so that a small application could run on as little as one-tenth of a CPU, says Nick Bowen, vice president of Unix and xSeries server software development at IBM.

Today, partitions can only be as small as a single CPU. In addition, IBM is planning an intelligent workload manager that automatically will detect usage needs, and add or subtract virtual resources on the fly. HP is planning similar features for its servers.

“Then we’re going to virtualize the I/O because when you get into the model where you have these relatively small CPUs, you don’t need native I/O for all of them,” Bowen says. So multiple virtual servers could share Ethernet cards or storage interconnects, for example. “Now you take the virtual capability, and not only do the consolidation, but also really take this on-demand thought to a completely different level,” he says.

The idea of turning proliferating Intel boxes into more-manageable shared resources is helping spur the adoption of virtualization technology, analysts say. IDC expects the market for virtual machine software for Intel-based systems to grow from about $30 million today to more than several hundred million dollars by 2006.

“It’s certainly hyperbolic for anything on the market today to claim to provide true utility computing,” says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata. “But technology like VMware’s virtual machine is going to be part of any broader utility computing down the road.”

The major systems vendors seem to agree. VMware has garnered considerable support from Dell , HP and IBM, which sell and support VMware on their Intel servers. The 5-year-old company has a lengthy client list, including CitiBank, Google and Merrill Lynch, and already is profitable, with revenue expected to top $50 million in 2003.

Still, the idea of virtualizing system resources is nothing new. IBM has used the technology in its mainframes for 30 years, and partitioning capabilities have been introduced on high-end Unix machines from HP, IBM and Sun. What is new is the ability to run reliable, secure virtual machines on low-end Intel boxes.

Microsoft’s entry into the market, with its acquisition of Connectix earlier this year, is one example of the growing interest in Intel-based virtualization. Connectix Virtual Server isn’t expected to be released until year-end, and analysts agree that VMware has a strong lead in the market. However, with the Microsoft threat looming, VMware is focused more than ever on ensuring that its mainframe-class virtualization software evolves to meet the demands of businesses as it moves from its test-environment roots to becoming more of a staple in production platforms.

In that vein, VMware will upgrade its flagship ESX Server 2, which is scheduled to be available this week. Among the enhancements are:

•  Support for virtual symmetric multiprocessing (SMP ) so that virtual machines can tap two processors. SMP lets multiple CPUs in a network device share the same board, memory, I/O and operating system. SMP support was expected, as the company announced it would implement the technology earlier this year.

•  Expanded support for storage-area networks, including the ability to change storage configurations without having to take down and reboot ESX servers.

•  The ability to combine multiple network interface cards into a single pool so that if one physical card fails, traffic can be routed to a live card.

•  Support for blade servers from HP and IBM, including IBM BladeCenter and HP ProLiant BL20p and BL40p blade servers.

•  A new management user interface.

In addition, VMware is introducing a “physical to virtual” tool to make it easier to migrate servers from physical boxes to virtual machines. Further, ESX Server 2 is the first product to take advantage of VMware Control Center, which the company introduced last month and lets users centrally manage and monitor virtual machines, shifting resources as business needs demand them.

The whole idea, analysts say, is to make the VMware technology easier to use, while improving its reliability as businesses in growing numbers consider bringing the virtualization software into their data centers.

Healthcare IT services firm McKesson had consolidated on Unix boxes and mainframes, but was watching the number of its Intel servers spiral upward.

“Utilization rates across those resources were not anywhere near what you can achieve on other platforms,” says Dave Moffitt, director of engineering at McKesson in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

As a result, Moffitt began a mission about a year and a half ago to find a way to consolidate applications on Intel servers the way he could on mainframes and Unix boxes – without the worry that errant applications would bring each other down.

“The mainframes have had [virtualization capabilities] for years and it’s proven to be a very solid and very efficient way to use what is a fairly expensive piece of iron. Unix was a little later to the party, but Sun and IBM both offer the equivalent of mainframe [logical partition] technology,” Moffitt says. “So the question was who does this well in the Wintel space?”

Moffitt says he found his answer with VMware. Despite initial concerns about having a single point of failure – if the physical box goes down, multiple virtual machines are knocked out – Moffitt says things have run smoothly and he expects to move more servers onto the VMware product.

Today, McKesson has consolidated about 45 or 50 stand-alone servers – many of them older boxes that he wouldn’t have upgraded otherwise – on a pair of IBM x440s. He declined to be specific about cost savings, but says “companies should definitely look to the advantages that VMware may bring to their bottom line.”

Alan Thomas, senior technical consultant at National Gypsum in Charlotte, N.C., says the improved user interface of ESX Server 2 will be a big plus in his data center, where about 50 stand-alone servers have been consolidated onto three eight-processor IBM x440s running ESX Server.

“The new interface is a lot faster, and it’s easier to manage,” he says.

National Gypsum runs everything from Web servers to electronic data interchange servers, and specialty applications on the virtual machines, which have let the company slash monthly hardware maintenance costs by about one-third. Thomas says he plans to consolidate more Intel servers onto virtual machines, and the dual-processor capability will let him do that.

“The fact that you can do two [processors] now really opens up another world,” Thomas says. “Not all applications are suited for single-processor virtual machines. But most everything can run fairly well on a dual processor.”

In addition to looking to VMware for consolidation, Thomas uses the virtual machine technology, which creates files that contain operating systems and applications, as part of his disaster-recovery efforts.

“The biggest headache for disaster recovery is domain controllers,” he says. “We are able to create a virtual machine for our domain controller and back up an entire virtual machine to tape and then restore that virtual machine on another ESX server at another location.”

While Moffitt and Thomas say they have had no real problems with VMware, both say it is important to start slowly.

“As with anything, test it thoroughly and make sure it’s going to work in your environment,” Thomas says.

ESX Server 2 costs $3,750 for a two-CPU machine. Virtual SMP, which is an add-on to ESX Server 2, starts at $1,250 for a two-processor machine.