In preparation for the launch of the new XenServer release, I have been calling on some of our beta customers to gain a sense of what they think of the new features and functionality in the XenServer platform.  Overwhelmingly, the word I have been hearing the most is automation. Customers are excited about how how the new automation features in XenServer 5.6 will make life easier for IT administrators in their struggle to keep up with the constant changes required to keep IT running.  

After many a call in with our beta customers, I have begun to think of this release as the XenServer release that delivers IT automation to the datacenter.  So what do I mean by automation? And how do the new features – in the words of one XenServer customer – “embrace” automation? 

Let’s start with the new XenServer 5.6 Advanced Edition.  In this edition, the key features are High Availability and Dynamic Memory Control.  While XenServer has long had HA, which automatically restarts a VM if the host fails, DMC is new.  DMC automaticallyreallocates host memory between VMs based on predefined settings and overall memory availability.  As was pointed out by a XenServer customer who uses XenServer as the foundation for delivering virtual desktops in a K-12 setting, DMC will allow them “to increase VM density and [thereby] host more students on few servers,” which should help the school reduce server costs.  I’d also point out it can help improve performance by providing additional memory to VMs when they require it.

Another new feature in XenServer 5.6 is Dynamic Workload Balancing.  This feature was released first in version 5.5, where it provided an “intelligent placement engine” to match application requirements with capacity available in the resource pool.  In layman terms,  it would match the CPU and memory needs of a newly created VM with host capacity. Version 5.6 extend this to automatically optimize VM performance by moving VMs to optimal locations in the resource pool at any time, not just during initial placements.  As one global manufacturer who was beta testing the software put it to me, “this lets me set it [thresholds] and forget it.  WLB just does the rest.” When paired with Host Power Management, I see a powerful combination that will allow customers to have VMs dynamically consolidated to fewer hosts during off hours to lower power and cooling costs, but then to also have the systems back online when demand picks back up….say on Monday morning. 

The other big new features getting a lot of attention from the beta customers is StorageLink? Site Recovery.  It a nutshell, Site Recovery provides, from a single console, a way to automate the disaster recovery operations for virtual workloads.  This includes the coordination of data replication between sites, the restart of VMs at the secondary site upon disaster and the recovery back to the primary site after the infrastructure services have been restored.  I believe this feature is generating a lot of discussion in the XenServer community because of the demographics of the community itself and how the functionality is being brought to market.  So what does that mean?  First from a demographics perspective, XenServer over the last year has done extremely well in engaging mid-market customers…the so-called SME. These organizations have long been on the outskirts of virtualization, as existing products did not meet BOTH their technology requirements and budget.  By making XenServer free, Citrix provided a low cost way to get started with a bare metal virtualization platform that could host their Windows and Linux applications.  Meeting both the budget and feature requirements was critical and, as a result, companies flooded in to activate tens of thousands of copies of XenServer.  

At the same time, the value of virtualization in the mid market is different than in the enterprise.  These customers do not have the hundreds or even thousands of servers that the average enterprise IT shop must support.  Rather, it is typical to find organizations with 20-50 servers.  So, while virtualization does provide some consolidation benefit, the bang for the buck is not as large as it is with the bigger shops.  However, in general it is the SME that is woefully under protected when it comes to business continuity.  Most organizations have looked at traditional disaster recovery (DR) solutions, but decided they cannot justify the high costs associated with delivering them. Hence, the most common plan is to back up to tape – either nightly or weekly – and then restore services once new infrastructure can be acquired and deployed.  The problem here is that can take days if not weeks.  As one financial company said, “the recovery time [our group] agreed to was 30 days….which would mean by the time we got back up and running we would be out of business.”  

I see Site Recovery as a killer app that will appeal to the XenServer base as a way to provide low cost DR services to critical applications.  I’d go so far as to predict there will be companies that don’t ever consolidate a single server.  Rather, they would just use it to provide business continuity – by which I mean a spectrum of high availability and disaster recovery services – to the organization.  These services will likely leverage the emerging cloud as the “backstop” infrastructure – another reason driving customers to XenServer – as the platform has become the building block for CSP services. 

Finally another feature that has generated buzz among beta customers is the Self Service Portal. Think of SSP as way to automate the delivery of virtualized infrastructure to application owners – both inside and outside the IT organization.  As one IT manager at a university here in the US put it, “with [SSP] we can quickly roll out new virtual environments both to our development organization as well as the IT labs we support. For us, this is a huge time saver as we will no longer spend our days and nights responding to requests for new servers”. 

All in all – I think you can see why I think of the new XenServer release as the dawning of affordable IT automation for desktop, datacenter and cloud virtualization customers. To find out more check out the new XenServer pages