Overview of VMware ESX / VMware Infrastructure Advanced Features

by [Published on 2 June 2008 / Last Updated on 2 June 2008]

An overview of the advanced features of VMware ESX Server and the VMware Infrastructure Suite. To understand the real benefit of the VI Suite, you must understand its many advanced features!

Introduction

VMware ESX Server and the various VMware Infrastructure Suite (of which ESX Server is a part of) offer many advanced features. While there are many advanced features of ESX Server, itself, many advanced features that most people associate with ESX Server, are typically optional add-ons (products) that are purchased either individually, or more typically, as part of the VMware Infrastructure Suite (or the “VI Suite”). In this article, you will learn what these advanced features are, how they can help you, and how they are packaged and purchased when you consider VMware ESX Server and the VI Suite. As there are so many advanced features, I have chosen the top 10 advanced features of ESX to cover.

#1 ESX Server & ESXi Server

Even if all that you purchase is the most basic VMware ESXi virtualization package at a cost of $495, you still gain a number of advanced features. Of course, virtualization, in general, offers many benefits, no matter the virtualization package you choose. For example - hardware independence, better utilization of hardware, ease of management, fewer data center infrastructure resources required, and much more. While I cannot go into everything that ESX Server (itself) offers, here are the major advanced features:

  • Hardware level virtualization – no based operating system license is needed, ESXi installs right on your hardware (bare metal installation).
  • VMFS file system – see advanced feature #2, below.
  • SAN Support – connectivity to iSCSI and Fibre Channel (FC) SAN storage, including features like boot from SAN
  • Local SATA storage support.
  • 64 bit guest OS support.
  • Network Virtualization – virtual switches, virtual NICs, QoS & port configuration policies, and VLAN.
  • Enhanced virtual machine performance – virtual machines may perform, in some cases, even better in a VM than on a physical server because of features like transparent page sharing and nested page table.
  • Virtual SMP – see advanced feature #4, below.
  • Support for up to 64GB of RAM for VMs, up to 32 logical CPUs and 256GB of RAM on the host.

#2 VMFS

VMware’s VMFS was created just for VMware virtualization. Thus, it is the highest performance file system available to use in virtualizing your enterprise. While VMFS is included with any edition or package of ESX Server or VI that you choose, VMFS is still listed as a separate product by VMware. This is because it is so unique.

VMFS is a high performance cluster file system allowing multiple systems to access the file system at the same time.  VMFS is what gives you a solid platform to perform VMotion and VMHA. With VMFS you can dynamically increase a volume, support distributed journaling, and the addition of a virtual disk on the fly.

#3 Virtual SMP

VMware’s Virtual SMP (or VSMP) is the feature that allows a VMware ESX Server to utilize up to 4 physical processors on the host system, simultaneously. Additionally, with VSMP, processing tasks will be balanced among the various CPUs.

#4 VM High Availability (VMHA)

One of the most amazing capabilities of VMware ESX is VMHA. With 2 ESX Servers, a SAN for shared storage, Virtual Center, and a VMHA license, if a single ESX Server fails, the virtual guests on that server will move over to the other server and restart, within seconds. This feature works regardless of the operating system used or if the applications support it.

#5 VMotion & Storage VMotion

With VMotion, VM guests are able to move from one ESX Server to another with no downtime for the users. VMotion is what makes DRS possible. VMotion also makes maintenance of an ESX server possible, again, without any downtime for the users of those virtual guests. What is required is a shared SAN storage system between the ESX Servers and a VMotion license.

Storage VMotion (or SVMotion) is similar to VMotion in the sense that "something" related to the VM is moved and there is no downtime to the VM guest and end users. However, with SVMotion the VM Guest stays on the server that it resides on but the virtual disk for that VM is what moves. Thus, you could move a VM guest's virtual disks from one ESX server’s local datastore to a shared SAN datastore (or vice versa) with no downtime for the end users of that VM guest. There are a number of restrictions on this. To read more technical details on how it works, please see the VMware ESX Server 3.5 Administrators Guide.

#6 VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB)

VMware Consolidated Backup (or VCB) is a group of Windows command line utilities, installed on a Windows system, that has SAN connectivity to the ESX Server VMFS file system. With VCB, you can perform file level or image level backups and restores of the VM guests, back to the VCB server. From there, you will have to find a way to get those VCB backup files off of the VCB server and integrated into your normal backup process. Many backup vendors integrate with VCB to make that task easier.

#7 VMware Update Manager

VMware Update Manager is a relatively new feature that ties into Virtual Center & ESX Server. With Update Manager, you can perform ESX Server updates and Windows and Linux operating system updates of your VM guests. To perform ESX Server updates, you can even use VMotion and upgrade an ESX Server without ever causing any downtime to the VM guests running on it. Overall, Update Manager is there to patch your host and guest systems to prevent security vulnerabilities from being exploited.

#8 VMware Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS)

VMware’s Distributed Resource Scheduler (or DRS) is one of the other truly amazing advanced features of ESX Server and the VI Suite. DRS is essentially a load-balancing and resource scheduling system for all of your ESX Servers. If set to fully automatic, DRS can recognize the best allocation of resource across all ESX Server and dynamically move VM guests from one ESX Server to another, using VMotion, without any downtime to the end users. This can be used both for initial placement of VM guests and for “continuous optimization” (as VMware calls it). Additionally, this can be used for ESX Server maintenance.

#9 VMware’s Virtual Center (VC) & Infrastructure Client (VI Client)

I prefer to list the VMware Infrastructure client & Virtual Center as one of the advanced features of ESX Server & the VI Suite. Virtual Center is a required piece of many of the advanced ESX Server features. Also, VC has many advanced features in its own right. When tied with VC, the VI Client is really the interface that a VMware administrator uses to configure, optimize, and administer all of you ESX Server systems.

With the VI Client, you gain performance information, security & role administration, and template-based rollout of new VM guests for the entire virtual infrastructure. If you have more than 1 ESX Server, you need VMware Virtual Center.

#10 VMware Site Recovery Manager (SRM)

Recently announced for sale and expected to be shipping in 30 days, VMware’s Site Recovery Manager is a huge disaster recovery feature. If you have two data centers (primary/protected and a secondary/recovery), VMware ESX Servers at each site, and a SRM supported SAN at each site, you can use SRM to plan, test, and recover your entire VMware virtual infrastructure.

VMware ESX Server vs. the VMware Infrastructure Suite

VMware ESX Server is packaged and purchased in 4 different packages.

  1. VMware ESXi – the slimmed down (yet fully functional) version of ESX server that has no service console. By buying ESXi, you get VMFS and virtual SMP only.
  2. VMware Infrastructure Foundation – (previously called the starter kit, the Foundation package includes ESX or ESXi, VMFS, Virtual SMP, Virtual Center agent, Consolidated backup, and update manager.
  3. VMware Infrastructure Standard – includes ESX or ESXi, VMFS, Virtual SMP, Virtual center agent, consolidated backup, update manager, and VMware HA.
  4. VMware Infrastructure Enterprise – includes ESX or ESXi, VMFS, Virtual SMP, Virtual center agent, consolidated backup, update manager, VMware HA, VMotion, Storage VMotion, and DRS.

You should note that Virtual Center is required for some of the more advanced features and it is purchased separately. Also, there are varying levels of support available for these products. As the length and the priority of your support package increase, so does the cost.

For more information on these suites and the costs associated with them, please see the VMware Product Index.

Conclusion

In this article, I covered 10 of the many advanced features of VMware ESX Server & the VMware Infrastructure Suite. You learned what these advanced features are, how they can help you, and how they are packaged & purchased. VMware ESX is certainly the most feature-rich virtualization product available today and, after reading this article, you should have a good understanding of what these advanced features are and the power that they bring to your datacenter.

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