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VMware broadens server software

The company, whose software lets an Intel server run several operating systems simultaneously, releases new software that supports a much wider variety of computers.

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Stephen Shankland
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VMware, whose software lets an Intel server run several operating systems simultaneously, released new software on Monday that supports a much wider variety of computers.

Version 2 of the company's flagship ESX Server product will work better on large systems such as IBM's 32-processor x445 and on small systems such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard blade servers. VMware also will sell an add-on called Virtual SMP that lets customers create the virtual equivalent of dual-processor servers instead of just single-processor machines.

The move to so-called dual-processor virtual machines, announced in February, opens VMware up to a new class of applications that require more computing power. And dual-processor machines are widely used: In the first quarter of 2003, $3.24 billion worth of the systems were sold worldwide, compared with $573 million for single-processor servers, IDC analyst Mark Melenovsky said.

VMware's software can run four-processor virtual machines in the lab, said Michael Mullany, senior director of product development at VMware. That software will be released as a product in 2004, spokeswoman Amber Rowland said.

VMware is also improving management software designed to ease use of its virtual machines. VMware will debut a tool called P2V Assistant that lets customers package the software running on a conventional server and move it to a virtual machine--P2V stands for "physical to virtual."

Customers for the P2V tool will include Guardian Life, MassMutual, Novartis and Saks, VMware said. ESX Server 2.0 customers include Black & Decker and the Montana state government.

Management tools are a major focus at many companies that hear customer complaints about the difficulties of running numerous servers, and VMware is no exception. Earlier in July, VMware announced its Control Center product for managing virtual machines and letting customers move one virtual machine from one physical computer to another while the application is still running.

ESX Server 2.0 has a starting price of $3,750 for a dual-processor server, with Virtual SM costing an extra $1,250. Prices double for four-processor machines, quadruple for eight processors, and so on, the company said.

Prices for the P2V Assistant aren't being announced, however, even though the software will go on sale Monday. "We're doing a soft launch of pricing for that," Mullany said. "What we want to do is make sure the pricing is right for mass adoption before we publish it to the whole world."

The new ESX server adds some other high-end features, including the ability to group several network adapters into a team that multiple virtual machines can share. The technology balances data transfers across the group of adapters and also means that a system can withstand the failure of a single adapter better.

In addition, the software now supports storage area network path failover, in which networked storage systems can still be accessed over a backup route even if the primary equipment connecting the server and the storage system fails.

Running virtual machines on a physical server means that more applications can be combined onto a single system, a concept that mainframe and higher-end Unix server customers have been able to take advantage of for years. But software running in a virtual machine runs somewhat more slowly.

One weakness VMware is grappling with is input-output--the communications to devices such as network cards. "We're working on addressing it," Mullany said.

"For very high throughput workloads, we incur 15 (percent) to 20 percent overhead. That means we take up 20 percent of the CPU time when the I/O stream is going at a high rate," he said. "We've dramatically decreased the overhead for gigabit Ethernet from the ESX 1.5 product," which had overhead of "a lot" more than 20 percent, he said. And on VMware's first product, released four years ago, even using 10-megabit-per-second network cards was impractical, he added.