VMware promises data centre refresh with ESX 3i

SAN FRANCISCO – With virtualization on the minds of over 10,000 VMworld attendees this week, VMware decided to announce its new ESX Server 3i, aimed at attracting new users with its tiny 32 MB footprint, enhanced security and ease-of-use.

The new hypervisor, a platform which sits in the server and allows multiple operating systems to run on a host computer at the same time, is part of what VMware’s CEO Diane Greene said was “a complete refresh for the data centre.” Unlike previous product generations, the ESX Server 3i is not separate from the server hardware, which according to VMware will give it increased security.

“The ESX Server 3i is thinned down and allows us to have unparalleled security and reliability,” Greene told a packed crowd in her keynote address. “The smaller your footprint, the less vulnerability you’re going to have. We took this hypervisor, put the 32 MB on a flash and embedded in the hardware so it becomes virtualization enabled and optimized for distributed management.”

Just last month, Citrix Systems’ US$500 million acquisition of XenSource, which occurred on the heels of VMware’s hugely successful IPO, helped legitimatized the virtualization space. And the with this year’s VMworld attracting 10 times the amount of people as VMware’s first conference in 2004, the potential for the easy-to-use ESX Server 3i is immense.

“The server promises to be a very easy way for new users of virtualization to get started as it really lowers any kind of barrier to using virtualization,” John Gilmartin, senior product marketing manager, said. “You turn on a server, it boots up, and you’re able to run virtual machines right away. This means a lot more people will be able to have access to virtualization and get started quickly and easily.”

Many of the speakers at the conference continued to hit home the idea that virtualization is the magic word when talking about the future of data centres.

“Four years ago, we only had one server certified on ESX 2.1,” Hector Ruiz, CEO of AMD, said. “Today, we have more than 20 servers and 15 blade servers certified on ESX 3.0.”

Other vendors like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC, Fujitsu and Fujitsu-Siemens are also getting on board, with each embedding the “ESX on a diet,” as it’s been dubbed, in their respective machines in the near future.

“Just imagine: you can be up and running with virtualization in two minutes,” Mark Jarvis, chief marketing officer from Dell, told conference attendees. “This is a really big deal and we believe it’s crucially important to deliver business-ready infrastructure that plug in and go.”

Despite the focus on attracting new users to virtualization, many older adopters were on-hand at the conference. At a customer panel session with reporters, several enterprise level businesses recounted their trials and tribulations with earlier incarnations of the ESX Server.

“With my company, our biggest challenge was that we weren’t being competitive in the market,” Frank Sabatelli, vice-president of virtual engineering at Iqor, said. “We had technicians out in the field that would have to redeploy 500 to 600 machines in a couple of weeks and we had to have them working 24/7 to get that accomplished. By that time, our competition would often come in and undercut us and get the job done a lot faster.”

Iqor, a financial services company which provides call centre services for banks and credit card companies, turned to virtualization with a solution which put virtual XP boxes on an ESX server. This gave the company the flexibility to rename, re-clone and redeploy machines within minutes, “We recently did a 500 seat in environment in less than 48 hours,” Sabatelli said. “Without virtualization it would take about 2 months, by the time you got the equipment ordered and had it deployed. We did it in 48 hours, which was not only impressive to us, but also to the customers.”

Sabatelli also recounted a situation involving a recent hurricane threat near Iqor’s Florida offices. He said that even though the company had to close down the offices, he was able to take the virtual machines out of the path of the hurricane and up to North Carolina.

“We flipped the switch overnight and had 80 agents working the next day in a new virtual environment, connected to the same desktops that they use on a daily basis,” Sabatelli said. “We might have been down at least 48 hours if we hadn’t done this and with damage it could have been down for 72 hours or longer. It turned out to be a success story and gained us more business in the long run.”

Lee James, chief architect of data centre platforms and virtualization at British Petroleum, has also become a big proponent of the virtualized infrastructure and the ESX hypervisor.

“If a server goes down on a rig, it means that somebody has to go out there, pick it up, fix it, and bring it back,” James said. “One of the solutions we came up with was a computer in a box, so we can deliver out to these rigs and also deliver out to remote locations. It’s a kind of a set top that has a couple of ESX servers in there, so if a machine goes down we can actually recover it, and this can be done either on-shore or by connecting back over to the rig.”

And with the dramatic cost cutting opportunities aside, James said the real benefit of having the ESX servers is that it ultimately keeps his company’s oil rig workers in communication.

“There is an f-word that’s used in the oil industry that everybody hates and it’s called fog,” James said. “When you have an oil rig, if it’s foggy, you just can’t get out there. Sometimes you can have systems like Exchange systems down for a couple of days and it’s already bad enough that these guys are stuck on a rig for two weeks, so virtualization has in effect enabled them to keep communication with the outside world.”

Customers such as these who want to be the first to get their hands on the ESX Server 3i will have to look to Dell’s virtualization server appliance, currently code-named Veso – set to ship this November.

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