Are the tweaks to VMware vSphere 5.5 enough to spur an upgrade?

While not a major release, VMware's vSphere 5.5 features a number of enhancements and tweaks that could tip administrators toward an upgrade.

Almost lost amid the hype of the NSX network virtualization announcement at VMworld 2013, VMware issued a "dot" release for vSphere with version 5.5. This latest release has some treats for basic users and virtualization experts, buttressed by its ability to virtualize bigger workloads.

Although not earth-shattering, VMware vSphere 5.5 got enough tweaks to fix a number of issues that it is a worthy update between major versions.

Boost in host maximums

Hosts got an expected rise in supported maximums and include doubling the supported logical CPUs to 320 per host. CPU efficiency has also increased to take advantage of newer power states as well as the Turbo Boost feature found in the latest generation of Intel CPUs.

In VMware vSphere 5.5, the maximum VMDK disk size has increased to 62 TB, a massive increase from the 2 TB in version 5.1. The maximum memory size has also increased to 4 TB, paving the way for administrators to virtualize extremely large workloads.

VSphere Web Client side

One of the nicest changes -- at least from the perspective of a Mac OS X user -- is the new support for the vSphere Web Client. The Mac version of the Web client can do everything the Windows version does.

For example, the client now has the native ability to upload and download files from data stores and deploy OVFs, a feature sorely missing in prior releases. Admins need to install the Flash plugin to enable this feature.

After installing the 5.5 vCenter client, users get a notice that new features will be found only in the Web client. Users of the full client should take note that it is heavily depreciated and on notice. In light of this, I expect that, over the next few releases, the full version of vSphere Update Manager will be discontinued and removed.

VMware rewrites SSO

One of the main goals for Single Sign-On (SSO) was to stop vCenter from gaining extra virtual pounds and turning into a monster VM. In vCenter version 5.1, an attempt was made to fix this problem by breaking out the constituent parts into separate VMs.

A lot of people had installation and configuration issues, to say the least. To remedy this, VMware rewrote SSO in 5.5 and developed revised installation methodologies and documentation. I would recommend you upgrade to the latest version of SSO because it makes the infrastructure much more robust compared to earlier versions.

You can now cluster your databases as well. This was a feature that was available but not supported in previous versions. This is big news for those who want that extra bit of reliability.

Hardware version 10

VMware made multiple improvements in the new hardware version. On top of mild performance increases, users can have 120 attached disks per VM, and new SATA drive types are available. What is interesting with hardware version 10 is it comes with a disclaimer that admins need to manage it via the Web client rather than the full client.

Big data management gets easier

With 5.5, VMware makes working with big data analytics in Hadoop a lot easier by baking management directly into vSphere. Advancements have been made in separating the compute from the data so failure of a node doesn't have detrimental effects on the rest of the infrastructure. Implementation and reduction are also a lot easier to manage. VMware has more information about vSphere's Big Data Extensions at this link.

More seasoning for vCenter appliance

The vCenter appliance is becoming enterprise-ready. Previously there was a limit of five hosts and 50 guests, but VMware has extended support to more than 100 hosts and 3,000 guests on a single appliance. Technically, the appliance can support a lot more than the maximum, but VMware placed the restriction for support purposes.

Over time, users will see the appliance become more and more feature equivalent to the vCenter Server we all know and love. I suspect that within a few more releases the only way to use vCenter will be as an appliance.

Improved vSphere Web Client

In previous 5.x versions, the Web client was a work in progress -- it is only with version 5.5 that VMware Install, Configure and Manage uses the Web client to any extent -- but it has been improved and is more robust in version 5.5.

I find myself using the Web client almost exclusively now, as the functionality and quality is now on par with the Windows client.

Cleaner vDS workflow

As most virtualization admins know, the standard vSwitch is no longer in favor with all the new functionality being plowed into Distributed Virtual Switches (vDS).

In the old Windows client, the workflow for vDS was very poor and a common complaint among IT. Now, in the new Web-based version, the workflow flows more cleanly and is much better designed, making it easier to use.

Speed bump from vSphere Flash Read Cache

To help improve VM performance, VMware has introduced vSphere Flash Read Cache (vFRC). In essence, vFRC allows an admin to store hot I/O blocks on local SSDs as a layer of cache for VMs. The system is automated and self-tuning in terms of what is hot I/O and does not affect the system's functionality with VMware DRS or VMware HA.

Storage improvements

Although it won't set the world alight, VMware now supports 16 Gb Fibre Channel in 5.5.

The number of commands that require SCSI reservation locks, which can be detrimental to performance, have been reduced.

VMware VSAN changes storage possibilities

VMware VSAN is to storage what virtual networking is to physical networks. It is set to shake up the world of storage through utilizing local storage in the hosts as a "virtual SAN." VSAN removes the need to involve storage administrators to create new storage and present it to the administrators. Now the administrators can create and deploy storage, creating it as needed from the pools of storage available to them with the chosen characteristics, almost on the fly.

As the technology matures, storage options will become a lot cheaper. Not only will this allow smaller companies to implement ESXi more cheaply, but it will also allow users to control the performance and characteristics of the data store at a very low level, including stripe size and choosing which disks are used. On top of this, users can create data stores with certain performance options and characteristics to ensure the relevant VMs are provisioned onto the correct storage tier to keep the speed levels at the expected threshold.

Currently, VSAN has the ability to use SSD drives for read or write caching to improve performance, but there is a limit of one SSD per host.

Final thoughts on VMware vSphere 5.5

Although there is nothing earth shattering in the 5.5 release, VMware has addressed a lot of the issues that were lingering since version 5.

It also points clearly in the direction that VMware intends to take its product: vCenter on Windows will eventually be eclipsed by a drop-in appliance that removes the need for Microsoft SQL and Windows OS. This, combined with an updated Web client that works on all major platforms, makes the vSphere client almost OS-agnostic.

In the next version, I expect to see more of the products that still rely on the full client to transition to the Web version, as well as tighter integration with things such as vCenter Operations Manager and vCloud Automation Center.

This was first published in March 2014

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