VMware vSphere 5: Technologically Awesome, Financially Painful.

I make no secret of the fact that I’ve pretty much built my career around a single line of products, specifically those from VMware. Initially I simply used their workstation line of products to help me through university projects that required Linux to complete but after one of my bosses caught wind of my “experience” with VMware’s products I was put on the fast line to become an expert in their technology. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as virtualization then became a staple of every IT department I’ve had the pleasure of working with and my experience with VMware ensured that my resume always floated around near the top when it came time to find a new position.

In this time I’ve had a fair bit of experience with their flagship product now called vSphere. In essence it’s an operating system you can install on a server that lets you run multiple, distinct operating system instances on top of it. Since IT departments always bought servers with more capacity than they needed systems like vSphere meant they could use that excess capacity to run other, not so power hungry systems along side them. It really was a game changer and from then on servers were usually bought with virtualization being the key purpose in mind rather than them being for a specific system. VMware is still the leader in this sector holding an estimated 80% of the market and has arguably the most feature rich product suite available.

Yesterday saw the announcement of their latest product offering vSphere 5. From a technological standpoint it’s very interesting with many innovations that will put VMware even further ahead of their competition, at least technologically. Amongst the usual fanfare of bigger and better virtual machines and improvements to their current technologies vSphere 5 brings with it a whole bunch of new features aimed squarely at making vSphere the cloud platform for the future. Primarily these innovations are centred around automating certain tasks within the data centre, such as provisioning new servers and managing server loads including down to the disk level which wasn’t available previously. Considering that I believe the future of cloud computing (at least for government organisations and large scale in house IT departments) is a hybrid public/private model these improvements are a welcome change , even if I won’t be using them immediately.

The one place that VMware falls down and is (rightly) heavily criticized for is the price. With the most basic licenses costing around $1000 per core it’s not a cheap solution by any stretch of the imagination, especially if you want to take advantage of any of the advanced features. Still since the licencing was per processor it meant that you could buy a dual processor server (each with say, 6 cores) with oodles of RAM and still come out ahead of other virtualization solutions. However with vSphere 5 they’ve changed the way they do pricing significantly, to the point of destroying such a strategy (and those potential savings) along with it.

Licensing is still charged on a per-processor basis but instead of having an upper limit on the amount of memory (256GB for most licenses, Enterprise Plus gives you unlimited) you are now given a vRAM allocation per licence purchased. Depending on your licensing level you’ll get 24GB, 32GB or 48GB worth of vRAM which you’re allowed to allocate to virtual machines. Now for typical smaller servers this won’t pose much of a problem as a dual proc, 48GB RAM server (which is very typical) would be covered easily by the cheapest licensing. However should you exceed even 96GB of RAM, which is very easy to do, that same server will then require additional licenses to be purchased in order to be able to full utilize the hardware. For smaller environments this has the potential to make VMware’s virtualization solution untenable, especially when you put it beside the almost free competitor of Hyper-V from Microsoft.

The VMware user community has, of course, not reacted positively to this announcement. Whilst for many larger environments the problems won’t be so bad as the vRAM allocation is done at the data center level and not the server level (allowing over-allocated smaller servers to help out their beefier brethren) it does have the potential to hurt smaller environments especially those who heavily invested in RAM heavy, processor poor servers. It’s also compounded by the fact that you’ll only have a short time to choose to upgrade for free, thus risking having to buy more licenses, or abstain and then later have to pay an upgrade fee. It’s enough for some to start looking into moving to the competition which could cut into VMware’s market share drastically.

The reasoning behind these changes is simple: such pricing is much more favourable to a ubiquitous cloud environment than it is to the current industry norm for VMware deployments. VMware might be slightly ahead of the curve on this one however as most customers are not ready to deploy their own internal clouds with the vast majority of current cloud users being hosted solutions. Additionally many common enterprise applications aren’t compatible with VMware’s cloud and thus lock end users out of realising the benefits of a private cloud. VMware might be choosing to bite the bullet now rather than later in the hopes it will spur movement onto their cloud platform at a later stage. Whether this strategy works or not remains to be seen, but current industry trends are pushing very hard towards a cloud based future.

I’m definitely looking forward to working with vSphere 5 and there are several features that will definitely provide an immense amount of value to my current environment. The licensing issue, whilst I feel won’t be much of an issue, is cause for concern and whilst I don’t believe VMware will budge on it any time soon I do know that the VMware community is an innovative lot and it won’t be long before they work out how to make the best of this licensing situation. Still it’s definitely an in for the competition and whilst they might not have the technological edge they’re more than suitable for many environments.

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