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Server virtualization is not as easy as vendors make it sound, which is why VM6 Software has created a set of tools that may make using Hyper-V a whole lot easier.

On Monday, VM6 Software — a server virtualization consulting company that has transformed itself into a virtualization tool provider — began shipping the latest release of a tool called VMex, which was created by the company's founders because they were frustrated with the tools that were available as they tried to help companies virtualize their infrastructure with VMware's GSX Server and ESX Server hypervisors.

VM6 Software was founded five years ago by Claude Goudreault, the company's chief executive officer and a hot-shot IT consultant from Montreal, and Eric Courville, the company's chief operating officer and one of the top brass at Platform Computing, PlateSpin, and Embotics - all players in the virtualization of servers and all based in Canada as well (Markham, Toronto, and Ottawa, respectively). VM6 Software was supposed to provide consulting services in the server virtualization arena, which looked to be a sure money-maker, and according to Courville, 95 per cent of the company's engagements were for VMware's products — as you might expect.

While this was a good business, when VM6 Software was asked to so installations of VMware hypervisors for SMBs or in remote or autonomous offices of larger enterprises, it found tools lacking, particularly for cheapskates who did'nt want to shell out thousands of dollars per server to VMware for a hypervisor and management tools. Moreover, a lot of Windows shops have just one person on staff (usually a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) to manage the Windows machines and kick the box every now and then. These SMBs didn't need ESX Server, and even if they did, they didn't have the budget for it or the skills to cope with it.

So two and a half years ago, VM6 Software jumped into the gap between what VMware was selling and what SMB shops needed, and created VMex 1.0, which Courville says was conceptually like VMware's own VirtualCenter (now called vCenter) management tool for GSX Server. It's worth noting that VMware did not initially support GSX Server (its type 2 or hosted hypervisor) with VirtualCenter - you had to buy ESX Server to get the management tools.

VM6 Software did one better than VMware and even created its own version of live migration for GSX Server and the freebie VMware Server. But even that required customers to install storage area networks to back-end the VMs and hypervisors, and if there is one thing that SMBs don't want, it is to spend a lot of dough on a SAN.

Given this fact, VMware's negligence of VMware Server as it prepped for the vSphere stack (and the ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor), and Microsoft's delivery of a freebie Hyper-V hypervisor for Windows Server 2008, VM6 Software shifted gears one more time and completely rewrote its VMex tools for the Microsoft stack. After two years of development, VMex 2.0 was released in September 2009, and this week sees the delivery of a more refined tool, VMex 2.1.

While Courville has great respect for VMware's products, the problem with vSphere or the competing XenServer/XenCenter alternative from Citrix Systems is that these are Formula 1 race cars — you buy the best engine and chassis and add a bunch of other parts and then keep it all running smoothly with a team of über-mechanics. Even if the Formula 1 car were free, you couldn't afford to pay the mechanics. And you don't need to drive hundreds of miles an hour — you're just trying to drive to work. You just need a Ford.

With VMex 2.1, VM6 Software is not just saying that server virtualization engenders a kind of high availability, but that it requires it. Small businesses want to virtualize both server and desktop workloads, and they might even want to do it on the same physical box sitting in the corner, so the software needs to allow for this. So the VMex 2.1 solution takes two physical x64 servers, puts two Gigabit Ethernet NICs in each server, and uses its own software to cross-couple the two machines over the NICs; one link creates a virtual SAN and for replicating data between the two servers and the other does heartbeat monitoring for failover between the primary and the secondary machine.

Both machines have to run Windows Server 2008 and the Hyper-V hypervisor, and they need to have processors with 64-bit memory addressing and the VT or AMD-V server virtualization electronics baked into Xeon and Opteron chips, respectively. Courville says that companies can add more Ethernet links between the machines to add more bandwidth, and that VM6 Software recommends that servers have multiple smaller disks instead of one fat disk so I/O doesn't become a bottleneck. The setup does not require an Ethernet switch, which is key to the aforementioned cheapskates in SMB shops.

VMex 2.1 does physical-to-virtual (P2V) server conversions and implements its own replication and clustering; the tool does not depend on Microsoft's Cluster Services. VMex 2.1 has its own implementation of live migration, called Quick Migration, which Courville says is easier to deal with than Microsoft's own live migration features.

The VMex 2.1 stack also includes a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) brokering service, so you don't need to buy anything else to serve up virtual PCs over the network. If you don't want high availability, but rather just a tool to manage server images on top of Hyper-V, you can just run the software, which costs $4,000 per node, on one machine instead of two.

While that sounds expensive, Courville says that over three years the VMex 2.1 setup, including software licenses and support, is 70 per cent lower than the similar vSphere 4.0 tools from VMware — the savings come from not having to set up a SAN as well as redundant VDI brokers and management servers as well as slightly cheaper software licenses. And even though Microsoft is giving away Hyper-V, the Systems Center and Operations Manager tools from Microsoft certainly are not free, and some would argue too complex for SMBs.

To fund its VMex product development, VM6 Software sold off its consulting business. In April, the company said it had closed $4m in Series A venture funding, kicked in by Ignition Partners and RBC Venture Partners, who now have seats on the VM6 Software board. Stephen Pollack, who founded PlateSpin and who, along with Courville, grew that company so Novell would shell out $205m to acquire it, joined the board as well. ®

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