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Tools to fill the VMware ESX 3.5 gap

ESX 3.5 may include several new features, but it's still not the complete package. Learn where to find third-party tools to fill the ESX 3.5 void.

David Davis
With the release of VMware ESX Server 3.5, VMware is now offering a number of new enterprise-grade features every virtualization admin needs. These aren't just things that will make ESX 3.5 prettier, like a certain new major operating system release I could name. All of the ESX 3.5 enhancements are features that admins really need.

Unfortunately, ESX 3.5 still lacks many features. In this tip, I'll describe what features are missing and where virtualization admins can find what they need, even when you do buy the most mature and most expensive enterprise virtualization package you can get.

What's new in ESX Server 3.5?

Let's consider ESX Server 3.5's major new features. (I'm not going to cover all the new features of ESX Server 3.5. (You can find that information in many articles that are already on the Web, like my article what's new in VMware ESX Server 3.5.) The major new features are:

  • Expanded SATA storage: You may have struggled with the SCSI or FC storage requirements for low end or test systems. Prior to ESX 3.5, you may have even gotten an iSCSI array or used an open source iSCSI array. With ESX Server 3.5, there is now new support for SATA disk.

  • VMware Storage VMotion: This new feature allows for virtual machine relocation of the storage for that VM (virtual machine) guest, without ever having to shutdown the VM. With VMotion, you could always move a VM as long as that VM was on SAN storage and the VM's storage location didn't change. With Storage VMotion, both the guest VM and its storage can move at the same time. In the past, maybe you shutdown the VM or you used an application like VMware Converter or another product that allowed for live migrations.

  • VMware Update Manager: This feature not only allows you to update your VMware ESX Server, but also any Windows guest operating systems. The latter is truly the amazing feature. In the past, you had to use esx-update to update your Windows Servers.

  • VMware Guided Consolidation: With guided consolidation, it's easier to consolidate your physical servers into virtual servers. Previously, you may have used something like Platespin's PowerConvert to do this.

  • VMware Site Recovery Manager: This is an amazing new feature of the VMware Infrastructure suite. With Site Recovery Manager, you can automate the disaster recovery process and, with the help of your storage system, provide high availablity over multiple data centers. What is missing is a way to get your virtual machines to your DR site. This doesn't happen over a wide-area network with VMotion like it does on your LAN. You have to use whatever data replication features are provided by your storage vendor. Prior to this, you may have just been manually creating your DR plan and ESX Server recovery process.

I do believe that as VMware enhances ESX Server, they will add more features to try to eliminate the need for third party software. This is similar to what Microsoft has done over time with Windows.

What's missing in ESX Server 3.5, and how to fill the gaps

There are still some major weaknesses in ESX Server 3.5 and the VMware Infrastructure suite that would require an enterprise virtualization shop to use third-party virtualization products. In my opinion, here's what's missing:

  • Robust performance monitoring and management: You can get this by graphing inside the VMware Infrastructure management client. I think you will find that it doesn't offer the capacity planning and historical information you need for an enterprise. For that reason, many admins look at Vizioncore's vCharter and, for things like chargeback, VKernel.

  • Replication of virtual guest operating systems VMDKs across a WAN: While you could use data replication tools from your storage provider, those tools are typically very expensive. For less expensive solutions for replicating VMs across a WAN, I have seen admins using Vizioncore's vReplicator and even tools that aren't specific to virtualization such as Double-Take.

  • Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI): VDI is a complex topic. With it, you have a broker that directs a thin client on your network to a dedicated virtual PC on your ESX Servers. The needed virtual desktop integration broker is not included in the VMware Infrastructure suite. Up until only recently has VMware had a VDI offering. Unfortunately, VMware's product and other third-party products I have seen for VDI are all very expensive at this time. Hopefully, in time, an open source or more cost effective VDI broker will emerge.

  • Robust virtualization backup: While the VMware Infrastructure suite does come with VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB), trust me: if you ever try to use this application you will quickly wish you had something else. Don't get me wrong, VCB does provide a necessary hook into the VMFS that your existing backup applications can use, but there is really nothing more to VCB than about five command line tools. What virtualization admins really need is a graphical and robust backup application that is made just for the virtualization environment and which supports differentials of your VMFS Guest operating systems. The two best 3rd party applications I have seen that do this are Vizioncore's vRanger Pro and PHD Technologies' EsXpress.

Conclusions

In conclusion, VMware ESX Server 3.5 and the VMware Infrastructure suite applications are a major advancement in VMware virtualization. These are, in my opinion, the most mature and robust virtualization products available. However, just as with Windows Server, there are still third-party applications that are needed to provide all the functionality that a virtualization administrator would need in an enterprise environment today.

David Davis has served as an IT manager for over 15 years. He has a number of certifications including CCIE #9369, MCSE, CISSP and VCP. Additionally, David has authored over one hundred articles, a number of video training courses including VMware ESX Server, VMware Server and Workstation. David publishes Cisco Networking how-to articles and videos at his Website HappyRouter.com.

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