First look: Driving VMware vSphere 5.1

VMware's new, Flash-based Web management GUI is easy to like, but it comes with a few gotchas

Today marks the official release of VMware's vSphere 5.1, and despite the point release, there's much more to this version than minor updates and bug fixes. In fact, this is a release that would have been comfortable wearing the number 6.

There's a lot going on in 5.1, and I've had only a few days to play with it in the lab. Still, my overall impression out of the gate is positive, with a few qualifications.

[ Also on InfoWorld: VMware vSphere 5.1 and the end of traditional networking | What's key in VMware's new vSphere, vCenter, and vCloud | Get the latest practical info and news with Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog and InfoWorld's Data Center newsletter. ]

The first major change is the client. While the existing Windows-based client is still present, VMware has marked the 5.1 release as the point where the transition to the Web client begins, with a road map toward phasing out the fat client at some point in the near future.

The Web client is a Flash-based interface delivered to a browser, and it has a look and feel that's completely different from the Windows client. It definitely takes some getting used to, as the fat client has long been the management portal into vSphere.

On the left is the object navigator, where you'll find objects relevant to the current focus, such as data centers, clusters, hosts, and virtual machines in the Hosts and Clusters view, and data stores in the Datastores and Datastore Clusters view. In the middle is the current activity focus that will display whatever selection has been made on the left, such as viewing a host summary or a VM configuration tab. On the right is a sidebar containing recent tasks, current tasks, and alarms.

Selecting a host on the left brings up several tabs that can display a host summary, performance information, settings, and so forth. These are navigated by tabs at the top of the main display. There's also a Related Objects tab that displays other elements related to the host, such as virtual machines, data stores, and networks. Each object on the right will have a Related Objects tab, which makes it easy to jump from one view to another within the same focus.

Also handy are the icons at the top of the left panel. These are shortcuts to the four main management views for vSphere: Hosts and Clusters, Virtual Machines and Templates, Datastores and Datastore Clusters, and Networks. These function like the drop lists at the top of the Windows client.

I like the Web interface, but there are a few caveats. It's not as fast or responsive as the fat client, and it has update lags that can interfere with normal operation. For instance, if someone adds a VM with the Windows client, the Web client will not necessarily reflect that additional VM unless the reload icon is clicked at the top of the app. Other navigation tasks may cause a refresh that will suddenly display the change, but a dormant client will not until it's manually refreshed, which can get admins in trouble when multiple people are working on the same vCenter instance.

The view of the networking configuration for a single host in the vSphere Web client, showing that we have a distributed switch configured on the host.

It's important to note that while the Web interface handles the bulk of normal vSphere administrative tasks, there are some notable exceptions. It's missing an Update Manager interface, and it lacks third-party plug-in support. This means that any time Update Manager is used, it must be accessed with the Windows client, and the same holds true for any third-party plug-ins, such as a hardware vendor's server management plug-in.

Also, there's the matter of compatibility. The Web interface is officially supported on Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox on Windows, as well as on Chrome and Firefox on Linux. It will run on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari on the Mac, but key elements -- such as VM consoles -- will not be available. While the effort of providing a cross-platform client is definitely something to be lauded, the lack of Mac support for consoles is very unfortunate.

Under the hood, we find more fairly significant changes, highlighted by feature additions to distributed switching, including load balancers and firewalls with extensive capabilities. VXLAN, the hypervisor-driven network layer, is VMware's big push behind concentrating all layers of the data center into a single management framework; while it's not new, much of the administration has been updated to reflect the new virtual networking capabilities.

Some of the new switching capabilities seem simple in relation to their hardware counterparts, such as configuration backup and restore, rollback and recovery, and LACP support. These are elements that are frankly necessary for any viable software-based switching framework, so it's important to see them in place.

Another new function is vMotion support without shared storage. This is a feature that Microsoft's Hyper-V has, and it was important for VMware to provide a similar function. This allows VMs to be migrated between hosts and nonshared storage at the same time. Thus, it's possible for a running VM to be moved from one host's local storage to another host's local storage, or from one data store to another.

On a related note, vSphere 5.1 also includes VM replication, wherein a VM can be replicated from one host to another -- say, from a primary site to a recovery site from within the host itself. This was previously available in VMware's Site Recovery Manager, but is now part of the main vSphere package.

Other additions include support for truly massive VMs with up to 64 vCPUs and 1TB of RAM per VM.

I'll be digging deeper into this new release. The initial impressions are good, but there's a lot of change in vSphere 5.1, and it may be a while before we all come to grips with the new look and feel and features -- and before the many transformations that VMware has set in motion are complete.

A summary view of a single distributed switch. Among the new features of the vswitch are a health check, configuration backup and restore, automatic rollback and recovery, and LACP support. 

This story, "First look: Driving VMware vSphere 5.1," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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