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VMware GSX Server wasn't fit for prime time. Says who?

VMware GSX Server: A VMware presenter told his audience that the popular but about-to-be-replaced GSX Server was never meant for production usage. This may surprise some customers.

IT shops that use the popular GSX Server from VMware Inc. might be interested to learn that the company's sales and engineering teams are now saying the about-to-be-discontinued software was unfit for a production environment.

At a recent VMware whistle-stop road show, Kirk Niska, a VMware software engineer, told IT managers that GSX -- which until recently sold for roughly $1,400 for a two-CPU server -- was never intended for use in production. The company is recommending that customers use its flagship product, ESX Server, a data-center-class virtual server, in business-critical environments.

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In a move to defend against competition from Microsoft's Virtual Server 2005, VMware last month said it would discontinue GSX as a paid-for product, replacing it with VMware Server, a free follow-on to GSX Server. VMware Server is expected to come out sometime in mid-year. Customers can purchase support for VMware Server, and those with an existing GSX license will also continue to receive support, the company said.

GSX Server users were both amused and bemused at the suggestion that GSX Server was never intended for prime time. "I didn't know [it wasn't intended for use in a production environment]," said Tom Fitzgerald, a technical analyst at Medical Information Bureau, a Westwood, Mass., company that serves as a data bank for the life insurance industry. "We've used it in production, and it seems stable."

Fitzgerald's company has been using GSX Server to virtualize its eight Windows-based servers for more than two years.

Another long-time customer agreed that VMware's repositioning on the use of GSX Server was surprising. "If anything, [VMware] encouraged the opposite," said John Weeks, director of IT at Mutual of Enumclaw, an Enumclaw, Wash., insurance company. "In a small environment, GSX is solid. VMware's posture changed when Microsoft's Virtual Server started making inroads."

Both customers are in the process of moving to ESX Server for the improved performance benefits.

OS layer versus bare metal

GSX Server, which was positioned against Virtual Server 2005, was touted for test and development, quality assurance and server consolidation. The software installs a virtual machine (VM) that emulates the hardware. Then, the user can install an OS known as a guest on each VM. The guest OSes can operate as if they were running on their own machine.

Both products run on Windows, although GSX also works with Linux. ESX is a better performer as it cuts overhead by inserting the virtualization layer between the hardware and virtual machines.

VMware Server is described by VMware as "feature packed." It's designed for entry-level partitioning, but it also includes support for 64-bit virtual machines, virtual symmetrical multiprocessing and support for Intel's chip-level virtual technology.

One expert said there is no reason why GSX Server should not be used in a production environment. From a pure engineering perspective, you might want the thing that is the most efficient, with the most elegant design because that's the most suitable for the enterprise -- and that might be ESX, said David Freund, an IT analyst at Illuminata Inc., Nashua, N.H.

"An engineer would naturally take a lesser view of anything with an inferior design with the same functionality," Freund said. "If VMware were to collect itself into a single voice, then of course VMware Server and its GSX parent are suitable for production. Where you draw the line is when you need a heavier workload."

In more advanced cases where you want to use another VMware software product called VMotion to move a live, running virtual machine from one host to another while maintaining continuous service availability, then ESX might be more appropriate, Freund said.

"But in cases when there are only a few servers and you want to consolidate everything into one new multiprocessor, then GSX or VMware Server is a great answer," he said. "ESX Server is needed when you are getting up into the bigger iron and more serious production workloads and you are worried about squeezing performance out of every virtual machine."

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