VMware unwraps vSphere 5.5 – What’s in it for your Datacenter?

IMG_6559Almost two weeks ago now, VMware unwrapped vSphere 5.5 to the public.  The release, which ships later this year, includes a lot of enhancements and some new features for the datacenter.  I won’t lie – 5.5 has a lot more in it for the datacenter than 5.1 enhancements.  And I left VMworld 2013 much more excited about the direction of the virtual datacenter than I did at the end of VMworld 2012.  So what are the things that sys admins will really care about in vSphere 5.5?

Expected enhancements – bigger maximums and more Web Client

As expected, the new release of vSphere increases maximums.  The ESXi host maximums were doubled from vSphere 5.1 to vSphere 5.5 in all cases, except for the maximum LUN size, which got a surprising 32X bump in limit to 64TB.  The number of logical CPU’s doubled to 320, the number of virtual CPU’s doubled to 4096 and the amount of RAM has doubled to 4TB per host.  Those represent some pretty incredible numbers.  vSphere 5.5 also introduces Virtual Hardware version 10.  The new hardware version is introduced to support newer CPU architectures as well as a new virtual-SATA Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) with up to 4 controllers and 30 devices per controller.  So, the new AHCI supports 120 total devices connected to a single VM.

Also expected, vSphere 5.5 drives users more towards into the vSphere Web Client for management.  All new capabilities are controlled from the vSphere Web Client.  This follows suit with vSphere 5.1, whose new capabilities like shared-nothing vMotion, were available only in the Web Client.  One thing I am hearing repeatedly on social media is that the vSphere 5.5 Web Client is noticeably more responsive, which is great.  I am also hearing the new Virtual Hardware 10 VMs can only be managed through the Web Client, which could cause heartburn for stand-alone hosts, but the final release may change this functionality.  The beta version of the Windows VI Client throws an error if you try to edit a Virtual Hardware 10 VM.  The error says the version 10 VM must be managed through the Web Client. This just means that resiliency of the vCenter servers continue to be critical parts of virtual deployments as it is a required part of managing the infrastructure.

And speaking of vCenter Server, the vCenter Server Virtual Appliance (VCSA) continues to become a more capable alternative to a Windows server deployment of vCenter.  With vSphere 5.5, the VCSA has a retooled embedded Postgres database capable of supporting 100 hosts and 3000 VMs, although those numbers may actually change for better or worse.  During one Ask the Expert session during the week, a member of the VMware Labs team said they were using a single VCSA to support as many as 500 hosts, but mileage my vary.  This is one of those numbers that may change during final release.

I’ll file SSO enhancements under expected as well.  While most people outside of VMware did not know what VMware intended to do with SSO, one session at VMworld pretty much summed it up by saying that the new version of vSphere SSO releasing with vSphere 5.5 will be what should have been released the first time.  To many adminstrators, myself included, the version of SSO introduced with vSphere 5.1 just didn’t seem up to VMware standards.  It seemed to be a third party tool that was included but not fully streamlined into the vSphere implementation.

The vSphere 5.5 SSO version includes a number of streamlined improvements.  AD integration is much improved and includes the ability to tie it to multiple forests, which is needed for many larger environments – or anywhere a merger has occurred.  There is no longer a need for an external database.  And there is a multi-master replication model built into this new version.

Storage improvements

There are many storage improvements included in vSphere 5.5.  One that I am very happy about is the streamlined and scriptable UNMAP process used to identify and clear out free space on a VMFS datastore so that your storage array can re-thin and free the space on the back-end.  This is a big one for me with 3PAR.  I want to keep my LUNs on a diet and this new ESXCLI command will go a long way towards helping me do that.  In addition to the new command line, the back-end functionality has changed with UNMAP, hopefully making it more acceptable to run during production hours and moving towards a time when automatic UNMAP during deletes might return to default functionality.  UNMAP can now stagger the reclamation process so that it doesn’t saturate a backend array with IO.

Another nice feature, from an administrative standpoint, is the automatic removal of permanent device loss (PDL) state feature.  This is especially handy in the event of array failures, which have been known to happen.  In the event of a failure, automatically clearing a LUN in PDL will keep the administrator from having to perform rolling reboots to completely clean up the mess.   The handling of PDL conditions has improved greatly over the versions I have used from 3.0 forward.  There as a time that a PDL could completely hose an ESX host and a reboot was the only way to recover.

vSphere 5.5 also features enhancements around SSD and Flash storage.  The ESXi hosts now have the ability to work with add-add and removal of SSD devices, allowing a graceful handling of SSD storage as it becomes increasingly more common.  In the world of Flash, a new read cache feature is introduced allowing for the aggregation of Flash storage into a pool that can be consumed by VMs for the purpose of accelerating read intensive workloads.   Last, but not least, 16Gb Fiber Channel support, end to end,  is available in vSphere 5.5.

Network enhancements

In the networking world, vSphere Distributed Switches just got a needed boost of capabilities.  Traffic filtering has been added allowing administrators to filter the types of traffic.  QOS has been added to the mis allowing for prioritization of traffic from the vSwitch up to the physical switch layer.  Security officers and admins troubleshooting will both be happy to see the addition of a host level packet capturing tool that is the equivalent of tcpdump to Linux admins.   40Gb NIC support is also being introduced with vSphere 5.5.

Mission critical workloads

One of the message points from VMware during VMworld 2013 was about making vSphere a platform that can run any mission critical workload.  The maximum enhancements and other resiliency features are all targeted towards that goal, but in particular one additional capability was introduced with vSphere 5.5 that is meant to assist with virtualizing latency sensitive workloads, like VOIP.   A new Latency Sensitivity setting is now available on VMs which help reduce latency for necessary virtual workloads.  When set to a ‘high’ setting, the hypervisor actively tries to reduce latency by reserving memory, dedicating CPU cores and disabling network feature prone to latency.

Tying it all together…

There is really so much more in vSphere 5.5 – a couple great places to get more detail is available from Kyle Gleed in his A Summary of What’s New in vSphere 5.5 post and in the What’s New in vSphere 5.5 document on the VMware website.

All in all, I left the Monday morning keynote of VMworld 2013 feeling a little let down.  Many of the enhancements that will really improve the admin’s life didn’t get any stage time or mention during the keynote – one reason for the delay in posting details – I had to find details…  Two of the big deals that were given stage time this year were the VMware VSAN, a software defined virtual storage implementation baked heavily into vSphere, and NSX, the network virtualization platform that VMware acquired with Nicira.  I hope to post on these two in depth in the coming weeks.

I was very happy to see a bit of a return by VMware to its core audience and products – centered around datacenter virtualization.  I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of other bloggers and industry folks while I was at the conference and I found several who shared my view that VMware had strayed from its roots in years past chasing the cloudy dream — a dream that we felt was a bit beyond the masses.  And while cloud adoption is growing, most enterprise datacenters are still reliant upon VMware and its vSphere platform to running daily operations.  Its good to see that VMware did not abandon us all and that they are are still working very hard to build the best and most resilient datacenter platform available.

Questionable decisions in years past – like the nasty 4 letter word – VRAM – can now be jokes and chuckles.  With so much attention given to vCloud and programming layers in the past couple years, it was welcoming to see things added to vSphere, where I live and work.  In my opinion, this year VMware had to deliver something valuable to all of its customers to starve off competition and justify the continued spend for Service and Subscription (SnS) contracts.  In many ways, I think they delivered.  I’ll save my thoughts on where they still miss for another post.

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Author Information

Philip is a IT solutions engineer working for AmWINS Group, Inc., an insurance brokerage firm in Charlotte, NC. With a focus on data center technologies, he has built a career helping his customers and his employers deploy better IT solutions to solve their problems. Philip holds certifications in VMware and Microsoft technologies and he is a technical jack of all trades that is passionate about IT infrastructure and all things Apple. He's a part-time blogger and author here at Techazine.com.

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