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Winning VMware Fling a foreshadowing of a post-server OS world?

VMware Fling Contest winner Steve Athanas talks about his suggestion that would ease the move from a Windows-based vCenter to a vCenter Server Appliance.

One perk of virtualization is the energy efficiency you achieve by turning those physical servers into virtual ones. There's another type of energy efficiency to consider: reducing the amount of calories the IT staff burns by manually dealing with mundane administrative duties.

There are numerous tools available to administrators tasked with handling a VMware infrastructure, but the VMware Fling site, where the company's engineers have turned suggestions into reality, is perhaps one of the more notable locations to find free tools to handle everyday responsibilities.

Easing the human workload can be done in a variety of ways. For a heavily virtualized environment based on VMware products, one thing to consider is a switch from a Windows-based vCenter to a vCenter Server Appliance. Patching and updating goes a little smoother in an appliance; saving money on licensing is the tipping point for many businesses.

But switching vCenters can't be done easily; it requires a lot of effort to rebuild one platform onto another. With this in mind, Steve Athanas, director of systems engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, pitched his idea for a new Fling to automate the migration from a Windows-based vCenter Server to a vCenter Server appliance. The judges at VMware took heed and selected his "vCS to vCSA Converter" idea out of more than 200 submissions to win the 2013 VMware Fling Contest.

SearchVMware spoke to Athanas about his experiences running a VMware environment and how he came up with his award-winning proposal, which is expected to be released at VMworld 2014.

Why the interest in migrating from a Windows-based vCenter Server to the appliance?

Steve AthanasSteve Athanas

Steve Athanas: For a lot of organizations, the simple fact that using the vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA) will save you a Windows license is enough of a reason. However, because we have academic pricing for Windows, our license costs are relatively low. We are quite thinly staffed, so we are mostly interested because it frees us up from patching and maintaining yet another Windows OS installation. Because it's an appliance, we're free to update the app and OS in one step.

Additionally, because the vCSA is purpose-built by VMware, it's streamlined to be a vCenter Server. It doesn't have extra unnecessary software like a DNS server. Theoretically, it's more efficient, for the same reason you wouldn't use a Swiss Army knife to spread butter unless you had to. Generally speaking, I prefer to use appliances when possible, as there are fewer things to mess with and that can go wrong.

Finally, it's fully supported by one vendor, VMware, which means that there won't be any finger-pointing between an OS vendor and an application vendor -- I only have "one throat to choke."

Is this move something other VMware users are contemplating?

Athanas: I don't know what other VMware shops are considering, but I think that for all but the very largest VMware shops, they should be considering vCSA, especially if they're building a new vCenter. In 5.5, the configuration maximums for the appliance have been greatly extended, so shops with up to 100 hosts and 3,000 VMs can use the vCSA and be fully supported. My guess is that this represents quite a large percentage of the VMware customer base.

How would you do this migration without some kind of automated tool?

Athanas: Well, without a tool like this, it's not really a migration as much as a "rip and rebuild." You're talking about manually -- or procedurally -- rebuilding your entire environment. Resource pools, vApps, logic, network policies and switches: Everything would need to be re-implemented. That's quite a pain, especially if you've invested much time in delegating access to users through roles or designed anything other than a vanilla environment.

Tell me about your staffing and day-to-day work.

Athanas: Day to day in higher education is interesting. We're routinely changing courses in the middle of the day [sometimes] multiple times because of competing priorities. Being a state agency, we don't have extra staff on the bench, so there's not much slack to pick up, so to speak. On the other hand, we get to work with some really interesting problems that are helping people get an education or do cutting-edge research.

Out of the office, I'm the leader of the Boston VMware Users Group (VMUG), which has helped me meet a lot of users in the community and get exposure to lots of different ideas about how to solve problems. Everyone's tackling interesting challenges and it's fun to get them all in one room.

Can you tell me about your infrastructure?

Athanas: In the grand scheme of things, we're a smaller shop. We have about 30 hosts, which are a mix of HP ProLiant BL460c (Generation 7) and HP ProLiant BL460c (Generation 8) blades. For storage, we're a hybrid Fibre Channel and iSCSI environment with [Dell] Compellent, Nimble and EMC products in the data center.

We also have a separate VDI environment that uses G8 blades and EMC storage. Currently we have about 450 virtual lab systems for our students to use both on and off campus.

Which VMware products do you use?

Athanas: Right now, we use vSphere, obviously. We're currently on 5.1, but moving to 5.5 before the summer. For our virtual desktops, we use Horizon View 5.2. We're starting to evaluate Horizon Workspace to solve some of our mobility and BYOD challenges.

Considering the number of entries, did you feel your Fling had a chance to win?

Athanas: Nope. I did it entirely because I wanted to see a way to migrate from Windows vCenter to vCSA easily, and I wanted the product team to see that there was a desire for this in the market. I'm actually surprised that it won. There were lots of really good entries. Let's put it this way, I wasn't checking the Fling blog with bated breath to see if mine was picked.

What are some of the perks of a Fling win?

Athanas: Free ice cream for life. No, just kidding. I got a pass to VMworld, which I'm excited about. I hope I get the opportunity to have something to do with announcing the availability of the Fling there, since that's what I've been told the target date is.

Do you have any contact with the VMware engineers developing the tool?

Athanas: Not yet, but I've offered to chat with any of them and test whatever they build. I'd love to see the sausage being made.

Do you have ideas for another Fling that would help a lot of users?

Athanas: I'd love to see a Fling that lets me do some quick-answer queries from the VMware View event database. As it stands now, I need to write my own queries, which is fine, but having that presented in the View administration console would be a lot nicer. I don't know if this is a Fling or a feature request, but either way, it would make my life easier.

Are there any Flings that stand out for you or that you use regularly?

Athanas: The VMware Auto Deploy GUI is a great Fling. I'm still surprised that this isn't just part of the regular GUI. I understand it's all CLI-driven, but putting the GUI wrapper on it is really nice and makes Auto Deploy accessible to a whole lot more organizations.

Ironically, I find that the shops that can get the most benefit from AutoDeploy are the ones that are too under-resourced to continually audit and patch their environment. Interestingly, these are the same organizations that would probably shy away from a complicated CLI-only feature.

What are your thoughts on the move from Windows -- vCenter Server, vSphere Web Client -- to other platforms?

Athanas: I think most VMware users are pretty pro-appliance, in general. Virtualization allowed us to abstract our applications and data from the hardware, but we haven't quite gotten there with respect to pulling our applications out of the operating system. You still need to manage the entire OS and the application and oftentimes there are multiple OS installs for a single app, which just increases the overhead.

Additionally, having a common OS means you have common infection and attack vectors. An appliance by nature can be hardened pretty well against run-of-the-mill attacks.

Lots of people talk about the post-PC world, but the post-server OS world is happening much more quietly, but it's happening. Frankly, I'd be interested to see what the rate of growth -- or loss -- of installed Windows Server licenses is over the past five years.

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Are you considering a move to vCSA?