Virtualization Viewpoints is a semi-monthly column that discusses current VMware- and virtualization-related trends, news and topics. Here we offer opinions and viewpoints on the competitive, quickly growing and ever-changing virtualization industry with a focus on VMware, the current virtualization market leader, which is in an ongoing battle to remain on top and distance itself from its competitors.
Deploying a VMware environment is as simple as a few keystrokes. Easy, right – or is it?
It's no secret that you can download and install VMware ESXi and be up and running and ready to create virtual machines in less than an hour. The actual installation of ESXi takes just a few keystrokes to complete, and while installing VMware ESX is a bit more complicated, you can cruise through the installation if you accept the defaults.
Because ESX and ESXi installation are so simple, you may be tempted to jump right in and start using it. But without the knowledge needed to properly set up, configure and administer your new virtual environments you can easily architect your environment improperly or misconfigure it so it performs poorly or does not function at all.
Let's say you want to build a deck for your house. The idea is simple enough, and all you need is a hammer, a saw, some nails and lots of wood to get started. But if you haven't built one before, you can make plenty of mistakes that could cause your deck to be unsafe or a failure altogether. You may have seen a lot of decks, but if you want to build one it is best to learn how before you start. Even if you did read a book on building decks, lack of hands-on experience can slow you down and invite mistakes and poor architecture decisions.
Must-have VMware resources for the beginner
The same holds true for virtualization; you may have the server hardware and VMware software, but if you plan on virtualizing you better prepare, and that involves more than just reading the documentation. If you are using virtualization in a production environment, you can't afford to make critical mistakes that could affect the stability and performance of your environment. Fortunately there are plenty of resources on how to architect a virtual infrastructure and do it correctly. These resources will help you gain knowledge and experience with VMware so you can make sure your virtualization project is successful.
- Documentation – VMware has excellent documentation and many individual documents for specific areas. You may not read all of them, but at least review the release notes, configuration maximums and installation guides before installing VMware. Then read the Server Configuration and Resource Management Guides.
- Classes – A great way to kick-start your learning is to spend a week in a class on how to implement virtualization. You will learn from the material, can ask questions of the instructor and will have hands-on labs to practice what you learn. While classes can be a useful tool, they are expensive. But classes are a requirement if you want VMware Certified Professional (VCP) certification.
- Books – VMware experts have written several books that share these experts' knowledge and experience. Search your favorite book website on VMware and you will have plenty to choose from.
- Websites – There are lots of great websites full of VMware information, news, tips, webcasts, videos and much more like TechTarget's SearchVMware.com and SearchServerVirtualization.com.
- Blogs – Dozens of VMware- and virtualization-specific blogs provide a wealth of information from experienced VMware veterans. For a complete listing, including TechTarget's own Virtualization Pro blog, check out vLaunchpad.
- VMworld – VMworld is the greatest annual virtualization show on the planet. So if you're serious about using VMware, you should attend. Besides more than 200 great technical sessions, there are hundreds of third-party vendors and partners at the show and thousands of customers, industry experts, VMware employees and more.
- Webcasts/Podcasts – VMware has regular technical webcasts and podcasts that are a great way to learn about specific topics. TechTarget also has a large library of webcasts on both SearchVMware.com and SearchServerVirtualization.com websites. If you miss a live one, you can access them in the archives.
- VMware User Groups – VMware user groups, or VMUGs, are a great way to meet your local VMware crew, watch technical presentations from VMware, customers, partners and vendors and to meet other local users. It's a great way to share information and to get answers to questions. Most large cities have a VMware users group, and groups typically meet every few months. You can view the upcoming schedule of VMUG meetings and sign up to attend at VMware's website.
- Knowledgebase – When you think of a knowledgebase, you usually think of a repository of documents that cover problem causes and solutions. VMware's knowledgebase is a lot more than that, though; it is full of how-to and informational documents that go well beyond how to solve specific problems. If you have a question on any VMware-related subject, this is a good place to start looking for answers.
- Virtual Infrastructure Operations – Virtual Infrastructure Operations, or VI:OPS, is a VMware community portal that contains great information from VMware employees, customers and partners. It includes information such as proven practices, how-tos and other great information focused in specific areas such as strategy, security, management and more.
- Forums – Support forums such as VMware's VMTN forums and TechTarget's IT Knowledge Exchange are a fabulous way to get answers to questions, share ideas and experiences and learn from other experienced users. Even if you don't have a specific question, you can browse through the many thousands of posts or answer a fellow IT pro's question.
- Social Networking – When you think of social networks tools like Twitter, you might think of users posting what they had for dinner or the weather. You might be surprised to learn that many users using Twitter post questions, comments and experiences about virtualization-specific topics. And you'd be surprised what you can learn in 140 characters. So sign up for an accountt, and if you're looking for virtualization-related people to follow, try following the followers for people like John Troyer, Hannah Drake or myself.
Practice makes perfect
Gaining knowledge is a great way to become educated, but gaining experience is what will really help you improve your virtualization skills. Knowledge and experience go hand in hand. You can learn only so much by reading. To become truly knowledgeable, however, you need to take it to the next level by actually doing the things you read about, and to do that you'll need software and hardware.
Getting the software:
- Free products – Products like VMware ESXi and VMware Server are great free products that you can install to start gaining experience with virtualization. While VMware Server installs on Windows/Linux systems and is more of a desktop product, ESXi installs on bare-metal and is a true data center virtualization product. Both products will install on a variety of server hardware (including older hardware) and are a way to gain experience before you invest in the more expensive editions of ESX and ESXi.
- Evaluations – VMware offers 60-day evaluation copies of its full-featured VMware ESX and ESXi editions as well as its vCenter Server management application. This is a great way to experience higher-end products and gain experience configuring enhancement products, such as Distributed Resource Scheduler and Fault Tolerance.
Getting the hardware:
- White-box and older hardware – Bare-metal products such as ESX and ESXi are officially supported only on specific hardware listed on VMware's Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) but fortunately ESX and ESXi will run on a lot of hardware that isn't listed on the HCL. Not everyone has spare server hardware to use to learn virtualization but you can use white-box (generic) hardware and older name-brand server models (i.e. Hewlett-Packard G2 and G3 models) for this.
You can find many cheap older servers on auction sites like eBay, but be aware that they may not support some of the newer features such as Fault Tolerance, which require the latest CPUs. Also, vSphere requires 64-bit hardware. Using new white-box hardware is a cheap alternative to buying new brand-name servers will often support features such as Fault Tolerance. Additionally you can find many cheap iSCSI/Network File System (NFS) network-based storage devices such as the Iomega 1X2 so you can use some of the advanced features that require shared storage.
- VMware ESX in Workstation/Fusion – An alternative to using server hardware to learn ESX and ESXi is to run them on a desktop using VMware's Workstation or Fusion products. There are several documented methods for successfully installing both ESX and ESXi inside a virtual machine on Workstation or Fusion. While desktop environments may be somewhat resource-limited they still offer hands-on experience inexpensively without buying server-class hardware.
I'm a firm believer in the Boy Scout motto "Be prepared"; if you've sufficiently prepared, your chances of success are much greater. I was once a VMware newbie, but by using the resources listed above, I built my knowledge and experience and achieve a level of expertise working with VMware products. When it comes to virtualization, there is no "easy button," but by leveraging these resources, you can increase your knowledge and experience so you are properly prepared to build and maintain a smooth-running virtual environment.
About the author
Eric Siebert is a 25-year IT veteran with experience in programming, networking, telecom and systems administration. He is a guru-status moderator on the VMware community VMTN forums and maintains VMware-land.com, a VI3 information site.