Wednesday, September 05, 2012

VMware ESXi 5.1 New Features and vSphere 5.1 New Features

This blog is a followup to the VMware ESXi 5.0 New Features posting from just over a year ago. VMware has released to the public the details of new features in VMware ESXi 5.1 and vSphere 5.1 and I will cover those new 5.1 features here, though if you are new to the 5.x series, the prior blog may still be quite interesting also. Spoiler: one huge new "feature" in 5.1 is removal of the vRAM limits! Let's look at all this more...

New Features in VMware ESXi 5.1

vRAM Memory Limits Removed: the biggest non-feature "feature"!

What does it say about a product when the biggest "feature" is simply un-doing / correcting a blunder made by upper-management at a company? If you remember the fiasco surrounding the new vRAM memory limits imposed by ESXi/vSphere 5.0, you know to what I refer. VMware's attempts to squeeze more cash out of customers by imposing what amounted to a RAM-tax upon their robust server boxes backfired (i.e., irked customers, like me). And, they have now un-done that mistake. ESXi/vSphere 5.1 is supposed to now be priced (solely) on a per-CPU-socket basis rather than on a strange and ridiculous combo of sockets/virtual memory used/VMs-being-managed. That is a good thing: I actually stuck with ESXi 4.1 due to the 5.0 vRAM bull@#! So, version 5.1 is on my radar.

Support for Newer Hardware

Not surprisingly, this latest 5.1 release includes support for bigger and more recent computing hardware (both Intel and AMD). In addition, the virtualization hardware-abstraction layer has been upgraded to a new "Version 9 virtual hardware" that includes support for Intel's VT-x with Extended Page Tables virtualization assistance features and the AMD-V with Rapid Virtualization Indexing (RVI) (nee, "nested page tables"). This VT-x/EPT and AMD-V/RVI support is to partially reduce hypervisor and virtual machine (VM) guest operating system overhead imposed on the physical processors (your server's CPUs).

One nice feature that comes along with this latest 5.1 version is, unlike with the 5.0 release, it is possible to allow any VM generated on VMware ESX Server 3.5 or later to continue to run on ESXi 5.1 unchanged (i.e., without being forced to shut down, update to the version 9 virtual hardware, and restart). Of course, if you want the latest features of the VM and hypervisor that come with "version 9 virtual hardware", you will have to update your VMs to get it, but at least you have the option to postpone the virtual-hardware upgrade task until it is convenient.

New Adobe-Flash Web-Based Management Client for vSphere 5.1

Yes, you read right: a new Flash-based management client! (actually, it was written in Apache Flex, which uses Flash to run applications built with Flex). I personally am OK with this as I have worked with some very capable Flash-based applications. The old management client is still able to interact with vSphere 5.1 applications, but features that are new to vSphere 5.1 will only be available in the Flash-based web interface client. Sure, it means that you need Flash installed on whatever machine you plan to manage your virtualization setup from, but such is. I already need Flash for so many other things that this is a given.

The new UI is peppy, stable, and secure from what reviewers are saying so far. And, it offers an advantage of performing some potentially-long-running-tasks asynchronously (threaded) so as to prevent UI lockup that could occur in the previous management UIs. And, the fact is, Flash-based UIs should look and behave identically on any device that can run Flash — which surely cannot be said of HTML-based UIs!

Virtual Machine Hardware-Accelerated 3D Graphics Support

Maybe VMware read my past blog where I stated (how in ESXi 5.0) that I felt "something is amiss: where is the Nvidia CUDA / vGPU support in ESXi 5.0? Well, it turns out VMware is noticing the importance of offloading processing to GPUs after all:
With vSphere 5.1, VMware has partnered with NVIDIA to provide hardware-based vGPU support inside the virtual machine. vGPUs improve the graphics capabilities of a virtual machine by off-loading graphic-intensive workloads to a physical GPU installed on the vSphere host. In vSphere 5.1, the new vGPU support targets View environments that run graphic-intensive workloads such as graphic design and medical imaging.

Hardware-based vGPU support in vSphere 5.1 is limited to View environments running on vSphere hosts with supported NVIDIA GPU cards [well, duh] (refer to the VMware Compatibility Guide for details on supported GPU adapters). In addition, the initial release of vGPU is supported only with desktop virtual machines running Microsoft Windows 7 or 8. Refer to the View documentation for more information on the vGPU capabilities of vSphere 5.1.

NOTE: vGPU support is enabled in vSphere 5.1, but the ability to leverage this feature is dependent on a future release of View. Refer to the View documentation for information on when this feature will be available.
Hmmmm... I am not too keen on that final caveat / disclaimer (about "future release" and timeline), but it sure sounds better than the lack of information about NVidia GPU support in previous releases! I am definitely intrigued by this since I play around a bit with CUDA code, but I am not specifically seeing "CUDA" mentioned here. I wonder how far this "off-loading" goes?

Other New and Enhanced ESXi / vSphere 5.1 Features

In no particular order...
  • Windows 8 desktop and Windows Server 2012 support. Nothing I personally plan to use in production anytime soon, but support is there for the latest Microsoft operating systems. I do have intentions of trying these latest OS offerings out, and VMs are the only way I would even consider it; so, good thing they are supported.
  • ESXi 5.1 has improved CPU virtualization methods ("virtualized hardware virtualization", or VHV) that is supposed to allow near-native-access to the physical CPU(s) by your virtualized guest OS's. We all like more speed in our VMs, so this sounds like a plus.
  • ESXi now has the ability to perform a VM-live-migration between two separate physical servers (running ESXi) without the need for both machines to be attached to the SAN. I need to read up on this and fully understand what that means... like, do I need a SAN at all anymore for this?
  • CPU counter and hardware-assisted-virtualization information can now be exposed to guest operating systems (useful to developers that need to debug / tune applications meant to run in a VM).
  • New Storage Features including: read-only file sharing on a VMFS volumes have been increased to 32 (from 8); Space Efficient Sparse Virtual Disks with automated mechanisms for reclaiming stranded space plus a dynamic block allocation unit size (tune-able to storage/apps needs); 5 Node MSCS Cluster (vs. 2 node); jumbo frame support for all iSCSI adapters (with UI support too); and, Boot from Software FCoE.
  • The reliance on a shared "root" user account (for administrators) was eliminated and support was added for SNMPv3. Local users assigned administrative privileges automatically get full shell access and no longer must "su" (sudo) to root to run privileged commands. This makes for finer-grained auditing and monitoring, which is a plus in shared environments.
  • With vSphere 5.1 Guest OS Storage Reclamation feature: when files are removed from inside the guest OS, the size of the VMDK file can be reduced and the deallocated storage space returned to the storage array’s free pool (utilizes new SE sparse VMDK format available with View); but note, this feature carries with it the same disclaimer that the NVIDIA stuff did — i.e., "dependent on a future release of View". Argghh. Wonder how far in the future that may be?


There are a fair number of new features in this latest release of ESXi 5.1 and vSphere 5.1 that are worth checking out, even though some significant ones are "dependent on future releases of View". The timing of this ESX / vSphere release goes along with the latest VMware Workstation, which I discuss here too: VMware Workstation 9.0 New Features of Interest — if you are interested in the desktop-product side of things.

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