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New multicore chips could create VMware licensing snafu

Adoption of new Intel and AMD 8- and 12-core x86 chips this week, could require pricey VMware vSphere licensing upgrades.

VMware's licensing policy for multicore chips could throw up a brick wall for end users who might otherwise upgrade to recently announced Intel- and AMD-based x86 servers.

According to VMware Inc.'s multicore licensing policy, vSphere Standard and Enterprise licenses support only those servers with chips up to six cores. New chips from Intel Corp. and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices Inc.) announced this week max out at eight and 12 cores, respectively. Therefore, they require upgrades to the more costly vSphere Advanced or Enterprise Plus versions, which will support chips with up to 12 cores.

 It reminds me of Oracle licensing, which I don't think anyone is a fan of.
Kyle Rankin,
senior systems administratorQuinStreet

The price differences could be dramatic. According to VMware vSphere pricing, Standard costs $795 per processor and Enterprise costs $2,875 per processor. Upgrading to Advanced or Enterprise Plus will cost $2,245 and $3,495 per core, respectively.

"I'm definitely not a fan of that," said Kyle Rankin, senior systems administrator for QuinStreet, a Foster City, Calif.-based marketing and media company. "It reminds me of Oracle licensing, which I don't think anyone is a fan of."

Rankin said that VMware doesn't charge more for a faster processor, and since neither Intel nor AMD is as focused on making faster processors as they are in making highly parallel chips, he doesn't think it's fair that VMware would charge more for more parallelism. He added that the No. 1 limiting factor on deploying more VMware hosts is how much RAM can fit into the machine.

"CPU performance is a distant third or fourth, so you probably won't see me buying eight-plus core machines for VMware until I can also shove in two times the RAM inexpensively," he said.

VMware's licensing could pose problems
When it comes to memory, VMware's vSphere editions feature distinct but important differences. Only Enterprise Plus allows for an unlimited amount of memory per physical server. All other versions cap it at 256 GB. With virtualized servers usually hungering for memory, this could become a major issue for end users looking to increase how many virtual machines they can fit on each physical box.

Kendrick Coleman, a VMware administrator at a nonprofit in the Louisville, Ky., area, has concerns about the VMware multicore licensing policy. As a smaller shop, he wonders at what point the hardware and licensing costs outweigh the cost of going to a hosting provider instead.

"If I were to tell my boss that we have to get eight-core CPUs with 256 GB of RAM with doubled per-socket licensing cost, you could be looking at $15,000 to $25,000 more per server," he said. "If you want redundancy, then you have to get two. So if the hardware is beyond our needs, then why virtualize?"

Tony Iams, an analyst at Ideas International Inc. in Rye Brook, N.Y., said that the new processors, along with the VMware licensing policy, definitely mean that end users should re-evaluate the business case. That is, will the increased performance of Nehalem-EX and AMD's 12-core Opteron allow greater-enough consolidation densities to return the investment of higher licensing costs?

"Consolidation ratios are also gated by memory capacity, so the cost of adding sufficient memory to correspond to the larger number of cores will also have to be figured into the equation," he said.

"Finally, users will also have to consider the impact on availability as they stack larger numbers of VMs on a single server, since greater consolidation increases the risk of server hardware becoming a single point of failure. Hence, users may need to consider the cost of more hardware RAS (reliability, availability and security) features or software mechanisms such as VMware Fault Tolerance to protect the virtualized workloads."

At the time of this writing, VMware had not returned calls for comment.

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