Review: VMware vSphere 5.5 adds speed and usability

VMware vSphere 5.5, the latest release of VMware's flagship virtualization hypervisor and central management server, has something for companies of all sizes. Usability and speed enhancements to the vSphere Web Client and the redesign of the vCenter single sign-on architecture are good reasons for all vSphere customers -- large or small -- to plan on making the move to vSphere 5.5 without delay.

While most customers will make the move for those two reasons, large enterprises will gain the most new features from version 5.5 with additions like vSphere Flash Read Cache, 16GB Fibre Channel, 40GB NIC support, 62TB VMDKs, enhanced SR-IOV, and vGPU support. And small shops will appreciate the new vSphere Data Protection (disk-based backup with deduplication) and the increased scalability of the new vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA), which makes vCSA the ideal choice for vSphere management for the long term.

Further, all customers will enjoy the latest features found in vCenter Operations Manager, a performance-monitoring and capacity-planning tool now bundled in vSphere with Operations Manager editions. For those shops that skipped the vSphere 5.1 update, it was likely a good move as the SSO architecture was problematic. With vSphere 5.5, VMware has completely redesigned vCenter SSO to eliminate complexities and past issues. You'll find implementing vCenter SSO to be much smoother and simpler in version 5.5.

What is vSphere with Operations Management?

The various commercial editions of vSphere with Operations Management are composed of a number of pieces. These include:

  • ESXi: The bare-metal, Type 1 hypervisor installed on physical servers.
  • vCenter Server: The centralized management server, available in both a Windows version and the Linux-based virtual appliance edition noted above. Note that vCenter is licensed in addition to vSphere with Operations Management but is a required piece. In addition to the Standard edition, vCenter Server comes in a Foundation edition for small or remote offices.
  • vSphere Client for Windows: The Windows-based client-side management tool for vSphere. This Windows client is still included but will soon be replaced by the Web-based client.
  • Advanced feature-set: Advanced management features that include vSphere vMotion, vSphere Storage vMotion, vSphere HA, and vSphere DRS, depending on the edition of vSphere you purchase.
  • vCenter Operations Manager: A "vApp" (containing two virtual appliances) that provides performance monitoring, alerting, and capacity management for the vSphere infrastructure.
  • Note that the free version of the ESXi hypervisor, called simply "the vSphere Hypervisor" (previously known as "Free ESXi"), has been updated to version 5.5 as well. As the free vSphere hypervisor is the same code as the commercial vSphere hypervisor, it too will benefit from numerous enhancements found in the commercial edition of vSphere 5.5. (Of course, numerous restrictions apply.) No matter which edition of vSphere you purchase, the ESXi hypervisor remains the same with only the advanced feature set varying from edition to edition.

In addition to the Standard, Enterprise, and Enterprise Plus editions of vSphere, VMware offers specific kits called Essentials and Essentials Plus, which are designed for the small and midsized business market. To be more specific, vSphere Essentials lacks advanced features, including vSphere vMotion, vSphere Storage vMotion, vSphere HA, and vSphere DRS. The Essentials Plus edition adds vSphere vMotion, vSphere Data Protection, and vSphere HA.

At the high end of the SKUs, the vSphere Enterprise Plus edition provides you with all the advanced vSphere features that you may have heard of, including HA (High Availability), DRS (Distributed Resource Scheduler), FT (Fault Tolerance), the Distributed Switch, vSphere Replication, App HA, Hot Add (for memory, CPU, and drives, including SSDs), Host Profiles, vSphere Auto Deploy, SDRS (Storage Distributed Resource Scheduler) with Storage Profiles, and much more. (See VMware's official edition comparison chart [6] for the complete list of vSphere editions and associated features.)

All editions of vSphere include a basic edition of vCenter Operations Manager called Foundation Edition. That edition, however, doesn't contain capacity planning (an essential piece) nor a number of other important features.

Although you can buy the full-fledged vCenter Operations Manager separately, you'll typically save by acquiring it with vSphere in a vSphere with Operations Management edition. Like vSphere itself, vSphere with Operations Management is available in Standard, Enterprise, and Enterprise Plus editions.

Thus, as vSphere and vCenter Operations Manager are really two separate (but tightly integrated) packages, let's analyze them one at a time.

What's new in vSphere 5.5

I've mentioned the increased scalability of the vCenter Server Appliance and the improved usability of the vSphere Web Client. Version 5.5 also boosts vSphere scalability by roughly doubling the host configuration maximums. The vSphere hypervisor now supports up to 320 physical CPUs, 4TB maximum memory, and 4,096 virtual CPUs per host.

I also noted the overhaul to vCenter SSO. In vSphere 5.5, single sign-on resolves a number of issues that plagued many customers, especially during the upgrade process. VMware has listened to the gripes and, thankfully, completely redesigned the SSO architecture, making SSO a multimaster model, enabling automatic replication, making SSO site-aware, and getting rid of the SSO database.

New virtual hardware, version 10, in vSphere 5.5 provides support for a virtual machine latency value (reducing virtualization overhead for low-latency applications), expanded vGPU support, support for VMDKs as large as 62TB, among other enhancements. (The complete list of new vSphere 5.5 features is located at VMware's website.)

While these are important improvements, they aren't completely new or unexpected. However, two all-new vSphere 5.5 features that, honestly, I didn't see coming are App HA and the vSphere Flash Read Cache.

By utilizing VMware's vFabric Hyperic virtual appliance and application-aware agents in your critical virtual machines, App HA extends the power of vSphere HA to your important applications, either restarting the application service or rebooting the VM when things go wrong.

At the outset, App HA supports only SQL Server, SharePoint, IIS, the Apache Web server, and vFabric Hyperic itself. Also, while App HA is certainly innovative, it is still a "1.0" version that is a challenge to get up and running. I look forward to future editions that are more integrated with vCenter Server.

Built into the vSphere hypervisor, the vSphere Flash Read Cache is a new vSphere storage tier that allows you to boost storage performance by taking advantage of read caching in direct-attached flash devices. The vSphere Flash Read Cache allows you to manage caching on a per-VM basis without the need for agents and with full vMotion consistency, preserving storage acceleration during and after a VM migration.

One new and interesting VMware offering that is not included in vSphere is the Virtual SAN, aka VSAN, which allows you to create a shared storage cluster from the local storage in three to eight vSphere hosts. Currently a beta product, VSAN will likely be sold separately, but I hope there will be a free, limited-capacity edition. VSAN is technically part of the vSphere 5.5 hypervisor that is shipping now. It's worth checking out.

Changes in the works

Over the last few years, vSphere has become a larger and more complex solution, and it is currently in the middle a few different changes. Three of the most noteworthy are the enhancement of the vCenter Server Appliance, the retirement of the vSphere Client for Windows, and the integration of vCenter Orchestrator and vCloud Automation Center.

To address the last of these first: VMware has publicly stated that, over time, vCloud Director will be eliminated and certain features will go "down" into vCenter while others will go "up" into vCloud Automation Center. Thus, with the next release of vSphere, I expect to see some nice new functionality available in vCenter Server and through the vSphere Web Client.

In order to offer a centralized management solution that requires no Windows Server license, VMware created the vCenter Server Appliance -- a Linux-based virtual appliance that contains a local database, a Web server, and the vCenter services (as well as other VMware-oriented services). VMware has improved the database in the vCenter Server Appliance, now offering a local vPostgres database, integrated SSO server, integrated vSphere Web Client Server, and more.

With the scalability improvements, vCenter Server Appliance can now support up to 100 hosts and 3,000 virtual machines using the embedded database, and up to 1,000 hosts and 10,000 VMs using an external Oracle database. In the next release, I expect the vCenter Server Appliance to support SQL Server as an external database in addition to Oracle.

There are still some limitations. Linked mode, vCenter Server Heartbeat, Update Manager, and SRM still require a separate Windows installation (but not vCenter Server for Windows), and they aren't compatible with the vSphere Web Client. As these pieces fall into place, I predict that many companies will be making the move from vCenter Server for Windows to vCenter Server Appliance.

Meanwhile the vSphere Client for Windows lives on. However, when you launch the Windows client in version 5.5, a new "warning label" tells you this will be the last release of the vSphere Client for Windows and, in different words, that you should start using the vSphere Web Client immediately. However, while the vSphere Web Client has been vastly improved and is now a pleasure to use, there are other hurdles to dumping the Windows-based vSphere Client outright.

To be compatible with the vSphere Web Client, third parties must rewrite their application-specific plug-ins that currently run in the vSphere Client for Windows. VMware also has some work to do to make all of its add-on applications (such as Site Recovery Manager and Update Manager) completely compatible with the Web client. And finally, there is no way to deploy the vCenter Server Appliance or create your first virtual machine on a brand-new ESXi host in a new vSphere infrastructure today unless you have the vSphere Client for Windows.

What's new in vCenter Operations Manager

While vCenter Server offers basic performance graphing and reporting, it doesn't offer the full functionality needed for managing performance and capacity in large vSphere environments. Ops Manager provides that performance and capacity management through deep knowledge of vCenter and vSphere (see InfoWorld's review of vCenter Operations Manager 5.7).

Announced at VMworld 2013, vCenter Operations Manager 5.8 adds dashboards for monitoring Microsoft SQL Server and Exchange, support for Microsoft Clusters, and new storage analytics with out-of-band management and greater visibility. With this new release, you can even use Ops Manager to keep an eye on the health of Hyper-V and Amazon Web Services, including EC2 and EBS.

VMware continues to make Ops Manager more intelligent, powerful, and useful thanks to improvements like the ones in vCenter Operations Manager 5.8. With improved management support for these "Tier 1" Microsoft apps and Hyper-V, vCenter Operations Manager could become the standard for managing multihypervisor environments (as long as vSphere is used).

Note that these new version 5.8 features are available only in the vCenter Operations Manager Advanced and Enterprise editions. This means that only vSphere Operations Management customers licensed with the Enterprise and Enterprise Plus editions will receive these advanced capabilities -- and that the multihypervisor management features of vCenter Ops are not available in the Standard edition that most companies will have.

Nevertheless, vCenter Operations Manager is a tool that all VMware shops should use. Even if all you have is vSphere Essentials Plus and you're currently using the free vCenter Ops Manager Foundation Edition, I recommend upgrading.

No matter which version of vSphere you're currently running, I also recommend upgrading to vSphere 5.5 with Operations Management. All of the new vSphere 5.5 features -- SSO redesign, fast and improved Web Client, more scalable vCenter Server Appliance, flash-based read caching, Application HA, improved backup, VM enhancements, and so on -- should have you looking at upgrading sooner rather than later. And for any IT manager looking for a rock-solid hypervisor and capacity management, vSphere with Operations Management remains at the top of the list.

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