Ready for a vSphere 5.1 upgrade? Depends on your current version

Not all virtual infrastructures are created equal, and not everyone should invest the time and effort into a VMware vSphere 5.1 upgrade.

VMware vSphere 5.1 includes many new and updated features from vSphere 5.0. Not every IT shop will benefit equally from a vSphere 5.1 upgrade, however.

System administrators and business owners consider many factors when investing in a new software product. Technological advancements, market positioning, user friendliness, corporate stability and reputation all matter, to varying degrees. So how does VMware's vSphere 5.1 suite measure up for virtualization?

Technology updates in vSphere 5.1

This is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary technological release. For an existing vSphere 5.0 customer, there is little (if anything) in vSphere 5.1 to justify an upgrade. Many of the new vSphere 5.1 features, such as allowing vMotion without shared storage, make new deployments easier. Other updates, including the software-defined networking components VMware acquired from Nicira, offer little to organizations that have already invested in the network and data center designs that supported previous generations of VMware vSphere.

However, if you have vSphere 4 (or are still an ESX 3.5 user), the vSphere 5.1 feature delta may well be worth the upgrade investment. Now in its second iteration, the Adobe Flex-based Web client is a polished and capable management interface. Single sign-on makes life a lot easier. The new vSphere Replication feature, virtual machine (VM) format and more powerful VM capacities will entice various users.

And because VMware's strength lies in sewing together disparate virtualization technologies, its management tools are a high point. Among its competitors, VMware only has a clear advantage in its management tools. VMware acquires and develops technologies to automate the data center, integrating those technologies into its management software to achieve true "single pane of glass" data center management.

In addition, small businesses could see real benefits with a vSphere 5.1 upgrade. The vSphere Essentials Plus kits now contain VMware High Availability, Distributed Power Management and a storage appliance -- offerings that bring enterprise-class computing to small businesses.

With VMware widely expected to release vSphere 6.0 in 2013, VMware administrators can choose between waiting for that major upgrade at 6.0 and incrementally upgrading to 5.1. Of course, some might eschew the latest-and-greatest new technologies of vSphere 6.0 until early adopters work out all the bugs.

Pricing structure changes from vSphere 5.0 to 5.1

VMware nearly caused a customer revolt with its vRAM tax on vSphere 5.0, which the company quickly repealed. After a decade of encouraging manufacturers and systems administrators to invest heavily in fewer servers laden with physical RAM, VMware punished its base by taxing each gigabyte of RAM in use.

If you have vSphere 4 (or are still an ESX 3.5 user), the vSphere 5.1 feature delta may well be worth the upgrade investment.

With vSphere 5.1, gone are the twin specters of counting RAM and an entire industry reengineering their systems to achieve maximal gain from yet another byzantine licensing scenario. With vSphere 5.1, licensing is once again a straightforward per-socket calculation.

Costs for all but a handful of specific scenarios fall with the new pricing structure, but the vRAM damage may already be done. VMware's pricing decisions with vSphere 5.0 damaged customer confidence -- just ask a VMware user forum -- and, in some cases, created outright hostility. Each organization must determine if the new pricing constitutes a "lesson learned," or if they believe VMware will return to a profit-maximization strategy at the earliest possible opportunity.

The commodity hypervisor and virtualization market

At this point in virtualization's maturity, new features and technologies appeal merely to niche cases; we've solved the low-hanging-fruit problems already. How long can software providers monetize the top-tier virtualization features at high margins before they too become commodities?

In the overall market, Microsoft Hyper-V is finally VMware's equal in virtualization, while Citrix can be argued to maintain a technological lead. Open-source deployments -- under CloudStack and OpenStack -- have made inroads into large data centers. So new vSphere versions also compete against a large base of existing vSphere deployments at various older versions.

No company wants their business's foundation eroded by "good enough" low-cost or free competitors, and VMware is no exception. Many touted vSphere 5.1 features are functionally irrelevant: Every hypervisor from every vendor offers them.

But VMware won't fall dramatically behind its competition on the technology front any time soon. Pricing and tiering changes benefit existing customers and should attract new ones. VMware maintains a significant ease-of-use lead with its management tools. Depending on your infrastructure, a vSphere 5.1 upgrade may win out, even over free options.

This was first published in January 2013

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