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How to upgrade to vSphere – and save cash in the process

When you upgrade to vSphere, survey your current VMware Infrastructure 3 licensing structure and service contracts to get the most bang for your buck out of newer server hardware and vSphere licenses.

In a general sense, virtualization licensing is a challenge that requires planning and consideration for current and future needs. And when it comes to upgrading to vSphere 4, you should be aware of some considerations to get the best licensing structure for your environment. If you're retiring first-generation virtualization servers for newer, more powerful systems, for example, you may be able to save on licensing costs by properly exploiting the additional power in your new servers.

When upgrading to vSphere, first determine where your current VMware Infrastructure 3 (VI3) environment is from a licensing standpoint. If you have current VI3 licenses with active support and subscription (SnS) contracts, these servers are entitled to a vSphere upgrade path. The SnS contract can be a current purchase or a renewal. Depending on how a processor and vCenter Server license are purchased on new servers, the SnS duration can be varied for that processor. Renewal license are extended with vSphere licensing.

Consider letting service contracts expire for older servers
There are reasons to let the SnS contracts expire for certain processors/servers, as you might be able to save on licensing costs. This may sound backward, but in some scenarios this consideration makes perfect sense. Today's VMware hosts are provisioned to be more powerful than hosts from 2006 and 2007, which is reflected in today's licensing structure. If you were wanted more than 16 GB per host back in the early days of virtualization adoption, RAM, for example, was quite costly. Today, RAM is much less expensive, and it's commonplace to provision 96 GB, 128 GB or more for ESX or ESXi hosts.

Beyond the RAM increase, VMware administrators also can benefit from the new processor architectures. The Intel Nehalem and AMD's Nested Page Table processor technologies have greatly increased virtualization performance.

If you have a more powerful host, you have a clear path to contract the total processor inventory for vSphere licenses. The licensing for vSphere is still scaled by CPU socket (per-processor licensing). Couple the clearly superior processor with a workload that hasn't changed much over the years, and you could get more juice out of licenses by consolidating workloads even further. .

Cores, sockets and vSphere
When it comes to upgrading, there are plenty of considerations beyond per-processor licensing. It would seem natural that current VI3 Enterprise customers would transition to vSphere Enterprise, but at second glance it's not so simple.

By now we all have surely seen the following vSphere version chart:

Click to enlarge.

VSphere Enterprise edition is limited to six cores per server. This entitlement simply allows VI3 administrators to move to vSphere. But new server on the roadmaps of AMD and Intel exceed six cores per socket, which makes vSphere Enterprise licensing a short-lived bliss. VMware has given guidance on this topic with a recently updated core pricing and licensing policy.

VMware also has made an accommodation with processor consumption. VI3 has been sold in dual CPU allocations, and until recently required hosts to have at least two CPUs to function within the terms of the licensing. With the updated single processor licensing policy, VMware customers can engage in single-processor consumption with the centralized licensing server.

This can be a blessing if you plan to rearrange virtualization zones. Take virtual machines that you want to put in a demilitarized zone (DMZ) for security purposes. With single processor consumption, hosts that are the right size can be provisioned as DMZ servers. This will keep the workloads separate at the hypervisor layer, and you'll avoid paying for licenses meant for dual-processor hosts.

Upgrade promotional pricing
VMware has several promotional upgrade pricing packages. Currently, VI3 customers have two principal upgrade packages to choose from. VI3 Standard customers can opt to upgrade to vSphere Advanced. This option has a base price of $745 per processor. VI3 Enterprise customers are entitled to transition to vSphere Enterprise, but as mentioned previously it has a limited life given processor cycles, and the Enterprise version is for sale only until December 15, 2009. The remaining option, vSphere Enterprise Plus, is priced at $2,295 per processor. Keep in mind that Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) is available only with vSphere Enterprise Plus.

These parameters have angered many VMware administrators because of budget cycles and a force upward in cost for technologies now included with certain licenses that may not be needed. While the vNetwork Distributed Switch, multi-pathing and host profiles are useful tools that many environments will use, most VI3 customers are pushed upward in pricing. That said, you may be able to circumvent the pricing pain point by purchasing your upgrade via a channel partner before December 15, 2009, that won't get invoiced or need a PO until January 1 2010 if budget funds are available at that time.

Trust, but verify
Many VMware customers purchase processor SnS at the time the server hardware is purchased. Further, the per-processor SnS can be purchased from the server original equipment manufacturer. Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others sell many VMware licenses as part of a new server sale. One issue that can arise is that licensing entitlements to vSphere may not be what you are expecting with the current VMware licensing administration. Thelicensing portal is the authoritative resource for determining what licensing level you can upgrade to. You want to make sure the correct number of vCenter Server 4 and vSphere 4 processors is reflected in your account.

Resources for a project
The good news is that VMware wants you to upgrade to vSphere. The bad news is that it will take a lot of planning, testing and verification to end up where you want to be. This vSphere Upgrade resource provides a number of good official practice points from VMware about the licensing differences and responsibilities associated with upgrading to vSphere.

Rick Vanover (VCP, MCTS, MCSA) is a systems administrator in Columbus, Ohio. Vanover has more than 12 years of IT experience. His areas of interest include virtualization, Windows-based server administration and system hardware.

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