Top 6 Features of vSphere 6

Top 6 Features of vSphere 6

This changes things.

It sounds cliché to say “this is our best release ever” because in a sense the newest release is usually the most evolved. However as a four year VMware vExpert I do think that there is something special about this one. This is a much more significant jump than going from 4.x to 5.x for example. It’s not just feature packed or increasing the maximums, although it does accomplish both of these. vSphere 6 introduces a few new paradigms which have the potential to create a lot of value, efficiency, and also good old-fashioned performance.

In our clickbait, social media driven world, lists seem to be a favorite article style . When I began to look at vSphere 6 with all of the new features I thought to myself “where does one start”? Perhaps this once I’ll join the new media fashion and list what I feel are the top 6 new features of vSphere 6. All without any diet tips, Tumblr feeds or embarrassing celebrity photos — I promise.

I think there’s some really game changing stuff here. Let’s dive in.

1) vVols (virtual volumes)

This is arguably the biggest new feature and has the potential to fundamentally transform how storage in approached in vSphere, so it demands that we spend a bit more time exploring this one.

VASA 1.0 as introduced with vSphere 5 which enabled many features ranging from array integration, offloading of copying and zeroing operations, multipathing, and storage awareness, which gave vSphere insight into the relative performance of your storage tiers.

While these features were great, there were several limits, including that datastores could not offer granularity to individual virtual machines, but rather all virtual machines would inherit the capabilities of a datastore. And while we could offload some functions to the array, snapshots were still based on delta files with copy-on-write mechanics.

While this is “OK”, what if every VM could have it’s own storage container and storage policy?

Today we spend a fair amount of time managing LUNs and Volumes in vSphere which in turn determine the storage characteristics. My VM is on “SAN02-VOL03” but what does that mean to me as an application owner?

What if the storage array through APIs could become “aware” of vSphere elements? What if each VM was it’s own container and vSphere administrators no longer had to deal with the management overhead and complexity of LUNs and file systems? Just provision a server and choose “Gold”, “Silver” or “Bronze” storage — or have this predetermined by a policy.

This is what vVols along with VASA 2.o aim to provide. Chuck Hollis has a great post going into more detail on this but for now I’m going to “borrow” one of the slides from his post to illustrate how this facilities providing the right capabilities to the right consumers.

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[Click to expand]

vVols and VASA 2.0 could be a blog post in and of itself, but to keep things simple let’s just focus on a few key characteristics of vVols:

  • VMDKs are native storage objects

That sounds good, but what does this mean exactly? Well it means that the storage array is “aware” of each VMDK and that the complexity of LUNS and mount points are no more. VMware administrators will no longer need to be concerned with LUNs or mount points as they are defined on the storage array. This layer of complexity is now removed from vSphere administration — going forward administrators only need to focus on VMs and storage policies.

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Traditional Storage versus vVols (click to expand)

 

  • Virtual Volumes

Each virtual volume maps to a specific VMDK. Because of this exclusivity, SCSI locking is no longer necessary.

  • Storage Containers

In vSphere 6 a new logical construct is a Storage Container which can contain multiple virtual volumes. Storage containers are managed by the storage array and can be used to group together storage that will share common characteristics and/or a common storage policy.

  • Single Protocol Endpoint

All storage is unified behind a single logical construct for I/O—called a Protocol Endpoint. With all storage traffic passing through this logical element

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vVol — Protocol Endpoint (Click to Expand)

 

  • Policy Based Management

Now we can have policies that we apply to VMs to govern capacity, performance and availability. Rather than managing this on the back end with LUNs and volumes we can now simply apply policies that provide the desired capacity/performance/availability configurations on a per-VM basis. We used to do this with scripts (or CLI) against hosts for specific LUNs — now we can simply define a policy and assign it to storage objects as desired.

  • Storage Array Integration

Storage vendors can integrate with the VASA APIs to offload I/O functions (array acceleration) and granular capabilities. This existed for some functions with VASA 1.0, but now with VASA 2.0 the opportunities to unlock the full capabilities of the storage array are available throughout the vSphere ecosystem.

For just one example of this, think of the way snapshots work today – a separate file is created which is basically copy-on-write which must then be reconstituted back into the VMDKs when the snap is closed. Many of you are already familiar with the performance impacts of these operations – which are especially common with backup and replication operations. Imagine if all this could be offloaded to the storage array for fast and space efficient snapshots!

And let’s not stop there as these benefits can be extend to provisioning, replication, deduplication, caching and more. In my opinion this is HUGE — you may be familiar with the benefits of space efficient snaps and clones, but these were always outside the domain of native vSphere snapshots. Now all storage vendors have the ability to provide hardware accelerated snapshots (big impact on backups) as well as instantly deploy space efficient clones for test/dev and more. There’s a lot of implications here for replication and disaster recovery as well. Pictured below are just some of the vendors that have made commitment to supporting vVols.

vendorsIn a nutshell, the complexity of LUNs and volumes is removed from the vSphere administrator, while enabling policy-based management and hardware acceleration from storage arrays for many common functions. Fast and space efficient snapshots. Space efficient instant clones for test/dev.

We’ve had storage APIs for a few releases now, but this level of integration between the storage array and the hypervisor is new. In many ways it’s a game changer.

(I’ll update this post in the future with links to more detailed vVol articles as they become available).

2) Fault Tolerance

VMware fault tolerance was always a fantastic solution but it’s use was always limited due to the restriction to only a single vCPU, no snapshots and more. Now these restrictions are being removed, opening up new possibilities.

If you’re not familiar with Fault Tolerance, a second clone of a VM is maintained in CPU-lockstep such that either VM in the pair could become unavailable and a single CPU cycle would not be missed, nor would any TCP connection be dropped. This is critical for transactional applications, e-commerce, VoIP and many more mission critical applications.

ft

Now with vSphere 6, Fault Tolerance is now available for VMs with up to four (4) vCPUs and 64GB of RAM, enabling it to be used for larger web servers, databases and even vCenter Server itself. In fact this likely a key reason to why vCenter Heartbeat is being discontinued – if your vCenter Server is no more than 4 vCPUs, simply use Fault Tolerance to provide high availability to vCenter. Some may also want to consider this as an alternative to Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS) in some scenarios.

vSphere 6 also adds support for snapshots, backups, paravirtualized devices, and storage redundancy for Fault Tolerant VMs which is critical for many use cases.

3) vMotion Improvments

vMotion has always been an incredible feature in vSphere which helps to provide both flexibility and availability, but now several new features will allow its use to be significantly expanded:

  1. vMotion across virtual switches
  2. vMotion across vCenter Servers
  3. Long Distance vMotion

The last one refers to a dramatic increase in latency tolerance as noted in this tweet from this past VMworld:

Put those three together and you now have the ability to vMotion to different regions. I worked on a large datacenter migration project (petabytes) where we had to populate data mules and ship them to remote datacenters to “seed” the replication process. I can only imagine how much time and money could have been saved if this technology were available then.

Future enhancements will support for active-passive replication as well as vSphere Replication.

4) Policy Based Management

There’s a few components to this including a new Virtual Datacenter Object which is essentially a resource pool which can span multiple vSphere clusters and facilities the assignment of policies to VMs. For example you might want to create virtual datacenters for production and another for test/dev and have these span multiple sites (and clusters). In the initial release this will be limited to a single vCenter server, with plans to support multiple vCenter servers in a future release.

polixyAnother new logical construct is tags which can be applied to any VM. These tags can be used to automate the initial deployment of VMs and ensure that the proper policies are maintained throughout the VM’s lifecycle.

Also worth a mention here is the new Content Libraries feature. Very often in VMware environments administrators will carve out datastores and/or folders for VM templates, ISOs, vApps, scripts and more. Now you can have a full content library for your virtual datacenters that can even be published across them.

With the ability to aggregate this content into a library, which can be shared and published to multiple vCenter servers, content can be standardized and made more accessible. You might even want to have different content libraries for different teams, business units and/or applications.

5) Installation and Usability Improvements

This is sort of a collection of multiple features, but I’d like to briefly touch on each as they are significant:

a) vCenter Server Appliance with guided install from ISO image

In vSphere 6 the vCenter Server Appliance has made improvements with feature parity and is now provisioned using a guided process from a self-contained ISO. I went through the guided process and it is much more quickly deployed than in prior versions.

b) Infrastructure Controller

With vSphere 6 a new Infrastructure Controller (IC) service is introduced which provides the following functions:

  • Single Sign-On (SSO)
  • Licensing
  • Certificate Authority
  • Certificate Store
  • Service Registration

Depending on your topology and requirements the Infrastructure Controller can be deployed within a vCenter Server or as its own independent server. This not only facilitates scale and more complex topologies but it simplifies both deployment and management.

c) vSphere Web Client Improvements

vSphere 6 still ships with a traditional thick client (C++) but some of the newer functionality is exclusive to the Web Client which has been substantially improved in this release. The login time has been reduced to about 3 seconds while other common functions within vSphere have been improved by several full seconds (such as from 4 seconds to 1 second for invoking the Data Center Action menu).

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The task pane returns to the bottom in the improved vSphere Web Client (click to expand)

 

Not only is the Web Client significantly more responsive in this release but navigation has been significantly improved by providing more right-click menus and adding the tasks pane back to the bottom of the screen.

The combination of the performance and usability improvements makes it easier to be more productive in vSphere as well as making the experience more enjoyable.

6) vCloud Integration

With vSphere 6 there is additional integration with the vCloud Air service in the areas of backup and replication. With RPOs as low as 5 minutes you can effectively use the vCloud Air service as a hot site for your production workloads, with support for both failover and failback operations.

Recently I wrote a review of VMware’s vCloud Air OnDemand service and I was honored that VMware had elected to share it. Rather that talk about it here, I’ll just link here to my post on vCloud Air for more information on that service.

Honorable Mention

Of course there’s many more features than just these six, so here’s a few I want to just briefly mention:

  • Storage I/O granularity improved to per -VM basis (was per LUN).
  • Network I/O control allows bandwidth reservations for the VMs that need it.
  • 64 node clusters hosting up to 6,000 VMs
  • VMs up to 128 vCPUs and 4TB of RAM
  • Hosts with up to 12TB RAM, 64TB datastores and up to 1,000 VMs
  • NFS 4.1 client enables multipathing, improved security, improved locking and less overhead for NFS storage.
  • vCenter Server resiliency — vCenter Server will now attempt to “self-heal” at several different levels in order to improve availability.
  • vSphere Replication now supports RPOs of as little as 5 minutes.

There’s a lot here, and the combination of vVols with VM level policy management and tagging will be huge. Performance benefits aside, administrators can now organize and combat the configuration drift of VM sprawl by designing policies that will automatically place VMs on the desired class of storage, with the appropriate performance and availability policies.

Many of these features are worthy of their own blog post, but I hope this quick list introduced some of the reasons why I think vSphere 6 is one of the more significant releases in VMware’s history.

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