vSphere 5.5: Top new features to get excited about

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There's never a dull year at VMworld. VMware's massive conference, which took place last week in San Francisco, California, was chock-full of announcements that touched all areas of IT-from the data center to end-user computing to the cloud and the networking between them. Among all the noise, the unexpected announcement of vSphere 5.5 stole the show. Why? Because vSphere remains the foundation that almost all VMware technologies are built upon.

vSphere has been following a pattern of one major release followed by a minor release the following year. The series so far has been: vSphere 4.0 in 2009, vSphere 4.1 in 2010, vSphere 5.0 in 2011 and vSphere 5.1 in 2012. So, you would expect VMware would release a major new version in 2013 and name it vSphere 6.0. That didn't happen, but while its name implies a minor release, 5.5 offers some significant enhancements to get excited about.

Free ESXi is no longer limited to 32GB of vRAM!

For some smaller shops and startups that need few VMs, a single host may be all what they need to run a virtual environment. I have configured a setup like this for many SMBs using the free ESXi. It gives them a taste of virtualization capabilities and the option to upgrade later to one of the paid versions when they have the budget. Some do upgrade as soon they develop the need for more performance or capacity that only multiple hosts can provide or to achieve high availability.

However, the 32GB limit on a host server starts to become really limiting when new PCs and laptops are being sold with 32GB of RAM or more. This may cause some people to start with a competing hypervisor, then continue to upgrade with the competitor's offering along the way. By removing this limit, VMware ensures the free ESXi won't be considered useless due to a memory limit.

Removing this limit is also important for IT pros building their own home labs. Now we can build much larger nested setups on a single ESXi host, enabling us to learn all sorts of cool features and products.

vSphere 5.5 adds more performance and scale

Interactive VMs can now be optimized to have lower latency, increasing their response time by up to 30 percent. Some configuration maximums were doubled, and the limiting 2TB size of the virtual disk (VMDK) was increased to 62TB. This supports the largest business applications enabling VMware to reach the goal of 100 percent virtualization of all servers.

The following table shows other configuration maximums that were doubled (per ESXi host).


The platform also provides a 2X increase in read performance by enabling vSphere Flash Read cache, where the ESXi uses its SSDs to cache virtual machines reads. This makes them available without any third-party agents or software.

High Availability (HA) for specific applications (vSphere App HA)

HA is without doubt the first feature an admin enables in a vSphere cluster. VMware HA basically restarts a VM on another host if the original is no longer responsive, and can restart the VM if it became unresponsive. In vSphere 5.5, HA can be configured to monitor and restart applications. This has been done before using special APIs, but you needed a third party to write for those APIs. Now vSphere App HA has built-in support for common packaged applications like SQL, Exchange, Oracle, etc.

Enhancements to vSphere Replication

In vSphere 5.5, vSphere Replication offers multiple-point-in-time copies of the replicated VM. This gives you the ability to recover a replicated VM to a working state even if a corruption in the source has already been replicated. It also provides better support of multiple replication appliances per vCenter and can replicate to an ESXi host directly in another site without the need of a vCenter server in the target site.

vSphere Replication no longer has an issue with Storage vMotion nor with Storage DRS, removing one of the most important limitation of its use. Previously, you had to choose to either replicate the VM or enjoy the benefits of storage vMotion and SDRS.

Enhancements to vSphere Data Protection (VDP)

For an infrastructure administrator, backup is a critical duty, and VDP 5.5 provides solutions to major concerns we had with VDP 5.1. What if you want to back up your vCenter VM using VDP, and you lost your vCenter? How could you recover it and how can you recover any VMs without vCenter?

VDP 5.5 answers these questions. It has an emergency restore directly to ESXi that enables you to recover your vCenter VM (or vCSA), or any other VM you need, without a functioning vCenter.

You also now have the ability to restore and recover individual virtual disks, specify the time of day for backups and remove the blackout window. All of these changes add more flexibility when you're configuring and managing virtual machines backups.

With VDP 5.5, you can also detach your backup disks to another VDP. This gives you the ability to reuse your backups if your VDP got corrupted for any reason, like a sudden power loss. I actually lost a VDP the day before I traveled to VMworld and had to sacrifice all backups previously taken to get a new one working before I leave.

More enhancements to vCenter

Of the backend enhancements, the most notable includes scaling up the internal database of the vCenter Linux appliance (vCSA) to 500 ESXi hosts and 5,000 Virtual Machines. Compare this to what it was previously: 5 ESXi hosts or 50 virtual machines! This makes vCSA a valid alternative for more VMware customers because it's much easier to deploy and maintain versus the Windows version of vCenter.

The web interface is much faster and more responsive in this release, and its usability has been greatly improved. In the 5.1 web client, you weren't able to select multiple objects or start workflows by dragging and dropping items. This changes with 5.5. Now, for example, when you want to move several VMs from one host to another, you can select them all and drag-drop to the destination host to initiate the vMotion wizard.

The new web client is now fully supported on Mac OSX, Firefox and Chrome, so you have more options for interacting with the web client using your favorite browser or operating system.

There is still much more!

This only touches the surface of what's new in vSphere 5.5. To learn more, check out the first vSphere 5.5 course right here on Pluralsight. Our friends at TrainSignal are also hosting a "What do you need to know about vSphere 5.5.?" Google Hangout with virtualization expert David Davis next week. Click here to find out more!

Ashraf Al-Dabbas is a vExpert, VCP, 3xMCSE, MCITP, CCNP and ITIL v3 certified. He has 10+ years of diverse experience working in a large organizations in systems infrastructure support and leading corporate-wide IT initiatives.

Top image credit: Outside of VMworld 2013 convention center. Courtesy of VMware's Instagram feed.

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Ashraf Al-Dabbas

Ashraf Al-Dabbas is a vExpert, VCP, 3xMCSE, MCITP, CCNP, ITIL v3 Certified and an MBA holder. He has 10+ years of diverse experience working in a large organizations in systems infrastructure support, leading corporate wide IT initiatives, organizing and conduction projects and social activities.

For Ashraf, IT is a passion not a profession. He is self-motivated, persistent and full of positive attitude. Exploring new technologies, learning new knowledge, visiting new places and meeting new people are the things that drive him forward. He likes to write, share ideas and interact with different people. As part of his upbringing in the Jubilee School for gifted students (Amman, Jordan), Ashraf learned to understand, accept then debate all points of view objectively and respectfully.