VMware pulls trigger on vSphere 'cloud OS'

After eight months of hype VMware has finally delivered the update to its core virtualization platform, announcing Thursday that vSphere 4 is generally available worldwide.

The company first talked about its "virtual data center OS" last September at the VMworld show in Las Vegas. Earlier this year it christened the product vSphere and last month it was officially launched during a splashy event featuring John Chambers and Michael Dell.

Now the software is on sale. Starting Thursday customers can order any of the six different versions of vSphere, which range from an Essentials package for smaller businesses to an Enterprise Plus edition for large data centers. The software is also ready for download from VMware's Web site.

VSphere marks a big step forward from VMware Infrastructure 3, the company's existing product. VMware positions it as a "cloud operating system" that will allow companies to centrally manage servers, storage and networks in their data center as if they were one big computer.

The software includes updates to VMware's core hypervisor that should allow it to handle large databases and other more demanding applications. VSphere quadruples the amount of memory available to virtual machines, triples network throughput and doubles the maximum I/O operations to more than 200,000 per second, VMware says.

A new feature called VMware Fault Tolerance can create a live replica of an application on a different server that can be used in the event of a hardware failure. Also new is vStorage Thin Provisioning, which allows less physical storage to be allocated to a virtual machine, and Distributed Power Management, which can consolidate virtual machines onto fewer machines during periods of low usage.

VMware said it was releasing the software ahead of schedule, although it appears to be in line with its plans for a second quarter release. "I think they had June in mind so they're pushing out a little earlier than they expected," said Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf.

BayScribe, an Edgewater, Maryland, company that provides a dictation and transcription service for doctors, has been beta testing vSphere and will move it into production as soon as it can, said Steve Bonney, BayScribe's vice president of business development.

"By far the main reason we beta tested vSphere is for fault tolerance," he said. If its dictation system crashes because of a hardware failure, the fault tolerance allows doctors to keep dictating their notes without interruption, he said.

BayScribe has been using VMware's vMotion for its back-up, which creates a lag time when data is transferred between systems and requires doctors to hang up and dial in again if a system fails, he said.

Analysts say vSphere is important for VMware because it will help it maintain its technology lead over Citrix Systems and, especially, Microsoft, which recently entered the virtualization market with Hyper-V.

The basic virtualization capabilities are becoming commoditized, with all the vendors now offering their hypervisors for free, and VMware is trying to stay ahead with more sophisticated management capabilities.

It still has more to do, however. The company plans a further upgrade that will let companies transfer workloads between their own data centers and those of cloud service providers such as Terremark and Savvis. VMware still isn't saying when that product will be released.

vSphere starts at $166 per processor for the small business system and goes up to $3,495 for the Enterprise Plus version.

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