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VMware 5.5: Plenty that's new and exciting... but what about the obvious stuff?
A view from the ground
For a number of years I sat on the periphery of server virtualisation. After all, I ran my company's network and telecoms team, and if I had a server issue I'd wander five yards to the servers and storage team and ask them nicely to fix their world.
With the increasing coming together of networks and servers in a virtualised infrastructure, however, it was inevitable that I'd end up spending a couple of weeks sitting in a room while a trainer educated me initially in the art of vSphere and then in the magic of vCloud.
So as someone whose previous server experience revolved primarily around cabinets full of physical tin and flashing lights, how do I find this virtual server world? Is it the utopia I've been told about for years by the server guys, or is it actually just a load of old cobblers?
The instructor on my vSphere course described the installation process for the ESXi host software as “Bung in the CD and click Next, Next, Next”. And you know what, he's about right. The software likes to use the whole of the disk you're installing it on, but that's fine. The whole install process is incredibly painless, and what you end up with is an ESXi host that's nearly useful.
“Nearly useful?” you cry? Yes indeed. A single ESXi host is really only any good for a test or lab environment, because it's a hideous single point of failure: replace eight physical servers with eight VMs on one ESXi host and you're in big trouble as a single hardware failure will kill all eight VMs. You can, of course, introduce several ESXi hosts to spread the load, but they'll all be stand-alone entities: what you actually need to do is bring them together in clusters so they can interact, and for that you need vCenter.
vCenter was traditionally an application that you installed on a Windows server. That was fine, but was a hell of a faff to install because you had to muck about with the back-end database and such like (and, of course, you needed a Windows licence to sit the application on).
With the 5.x generation of vSphere, vCenter is available as a virtual appliance. No more buggering about installing loads of components – just hit File → Deploy OVF Template... and wait for it to do its thing. vCenter brings all the things that you really need in a virtual environment – clustering, migration of VMs between hosts and automated fault tolerance and high availability.
When it's working, vCenter is great: it just works. My problem is starting it up: I can grow a long, bushy beard in the time between the admin GUI telling me the services are up and the vSphere Web Client service actually starting to respond to my browser. VMware take note: don't bother telling me that the service is started until I can actually interact with it!
Management of a VMware setup was traditionally achieved via what the oldies call the “C# client”. It's a Windows application whose general look and feel hasn't changed much in recent years, and although the actual concepts you're managing with it are often far from trivial, the application itself is fine.
From release 5.0, however, VMware have introduced the vSphere Web Client. Many die-hards curse the Web Client; this is partly because it's quite a lot different from the C# cllient in its look and feel and partly because it can be a bit slow. Personally I quite like it, though this may well be because my 5.5 version in the lab feels considerably snappier than the 5.1 version I used a few months ago on a different installation.
The problem, though, is that VMware needs to make its mind up – because unbelievably you actually need to use both clients to manage your world. Some functions can only be achieved through the C# client – notably Site Recovery Manager and Update Manager, but most importantly direct management of the ESXi host. Other functions (anything new in vSphere 5.1 onwards, basically) haven't been included in the C# client and so you have to use the Web client.
This latter issue is a particular pain in the arse if, like me, you're a Mac person. Once you've made a manual change to a config file (an out-of-the-box 5.5 install doesn't quite work on Macs as the remote console function doesn't respond) it works a treat, but if you want to work individually on a host you'll need a PC or, if you're like me, a Windows VM inside VMware Fusion on the Mac. VMware really need to sort themselves out and make the Web Client universal.