nhiservices
Contributor
Contributor

Looking for noob advice on hardware

We would like to experiment with the use of VMWare in our development and test environments, initially with the free VMWare solutions (ESXi or VMWare Server). We are a small company, so are looking for options for low-cost hardware to support our requirements.

Our basic requirement is to deploy our core applications in a single VM for test purposes. The application suite consists primarily of:

- An ASP.Net web application

- An ASP.Net console application, which is heavy on both RAM, CPU and disk space usage

- Two SQL Server 2005 databases, supporting the above applications.

We find that this suite runs acceptably on a Dual Core Xeon CPU with 4Gb RAM, on Windows Server 2003.

We've dabbled with VMWare Server on a dual core server (with a Windows Server 2003 host o/s), but performance hasn't been great.I'm guessing that ESXi would yield performance benefits, but we have no available servers with SCSI disk interfaces, and this in particular presents a major cost obstacle to us. Ideally we'd like the server to have at least 300Gb of available disk space, which is an expensive proposition if we're limited to SCSI.

I understand that Nforce 3600 Pro boards can enable the use of SATA disks with ESXi, but I'm concerned about being locked into a specific board.

Can anyone recommend a good, cost-effective server spec to support this requirement?

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7 Replies
RParker
Immortal
Immortal

We've dabbled with VMWare Server on a dual core server (with a Windows Server 2003 host o/s), but performance hasn't been great.I'm guessing that ESXi would yield performance benefits

Actually it doesn't. A common misconception is ESX is somehow giving you performance gains it does NOT. VM Server will be the SAME when compared to ESX. The only thing ESX gives you is management and security. It gives you more level of control as well, but performance is at the HARDWARE level not ESX.

ESX CAN make things more efficient, but doesn't always mean faster. VM Ware sever has limits like 2 CPU per VM vs 8, etc. but ESX doesn't give you better performance on similar hardware.

Can anyone recommend a good, cost-effective server spec to support this requirement?

Start with the hardware compatibility list for the Virtual Platform you want to use. If you deviate from this, you could run into potential driver issues, that's where I would start.

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nhiservices
Contributor
Contributor

Your comments are very surprising - in a good way! I was guessing that the overhead of running the host Windows O/S would inevitably introduce a performance drag.

So in principle we could continue to use our Windows Server environments for VMWare Server hosts, and simply increase the hardware specs to improve performance? That would be extremely convenient.

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golddiggie
Champion
Champion

It all really comes down to what your budget is for the hardware, and what you're willing to put up with. I would opt for either a workstation class tower (Dell Precision Workstation systems, either a T5400/7400 or T5500/7500 would work great, look on the Dell outlet site). Go with either one, or two, quad core Xeon processors, that are at least the E5400 series chips (higher end 5300 series could work in a pinch). I would also get at least 8GB of RAM installed into the host server. You'll need a hardware RAID controller (with battery backed cache) that is on the HCL, such as the PERC 6/i controller, for the storage. Otherwise, the drives will not be inside a RAID configuration when you install ESXi onto the host (software RAID is unsupported). You can get a T7400 tower (on the outlet side) for under $2000 right now... You'll want to increase the RAM (memory is pretty cheap for these systems now) and either add more storage to them, or do something (you could install ESXi 4.x onto an USB flash drive, using the local disk for the VM datastore). The T5500 models start lower in price, just be sure you get the correct configuration (hardware)... You'll only need a dvd-rom drive inside the host, no point in going beyond that. So for under $3000 you could have a ESXi host server that will hold up for the next few years (at least) and not be sucking down tons of power (which real servers tend to do).

I've been using a T7400 for almost three years now to run ESXi... Using local drives (two SAS RAID 1 arrays, 146GB drives for ESXi, 1TB drives for the VM datastore) on a PERC 6/i controller, 16GB RAM, dual E5405 Xeon's and the cheapest video card option I could get at the time. The system runs damn near silent, sips power, and doesn't put out enough heat to notice (my PWS490 puts out more due to it's 8800GTX video card)... I do have two additional NIC's installed, both are Intel server class/grade cards. One is a dual port, the other a quad, all of them Gb... I'm running ESXi 4.1 on this system right now, without any issues/troubles either installing or running it. With the Xeon's inside it, I have plenty of power to run all my VM's (9 right now)... I am running short on RAM though, ranging from 12-14GB used, with about 17.5GB allocated to VM's. Obviously I have some VM's that are using almost all of the RAM that I've allocated to them, so efficiency is high (not over allocating by leaps and bounds).

I would go with ESXi over the VMware Server product at this point (I've used both over the years). For one thing ESX/ESXi requires no additional OS to run. You need to install the VMware Server product on top of an OS, and then you can virtualize systems. ESX/ESXi is 'bare metal' virtualization, so more effecient use of resources. I would also use at least a quad core Xeon, preferring to use dual socket, quad core (as a minimum). Also get as much RAM as you can... ESXi will need about 1-2GB for itself to run, then you'll want RAM for the VM's to use. While you probably won't use all the RAM you provide the VM's, it's not a bad idea to start with 8-16GB of RAM, even if you're only planning on running a few VM's to start with. Also make damned sure the hardware is on the VMware HCL (at least the NIC's, RAID controllers, processors, and other major components) for the release you're going to use. Make sure you have Intel Virtualization settings within the system bios, and the processor is a true 64 bit chip (and on the HCL as supported). You can also reference some third party sites such as Ultimate ESX Whitebox to find out what other people have been able to use for systems/hardware (with success) with different releases of ESX/ESXi... When in doubt, read the detailed information on the configuration. Also, just because some hardware works with ESX/ESXi 4.0 is no guarantee that it will work with ESX/ESXi 4.1 and beyond. That is, unless it's on the VMware HCL as being officially supported...

On my host, I find that CPU usage typically runs less than 1 core utilized (in MHz/GHz). This is pretty common in the VMware ESX/ESXi world... You'll more often run low on RAM and drive space before you start to tax the processors of the host. That is, IF you spec out your host properly. I've seen older dual socket, dual core Xeon servers (HP DL360 G5's with 5100 series chips) where the CPU usage was high. Same VM's were moved over to new hosts (Dell R710's with dual E5620 Xeon's) and CPU usage dropped like a stone. Going from over 50% utilized on the old hosts to under 5% utilized on the new, with one socket showing as being 'dormant' every time I looked (during active/production hours)...

VMware VCP4

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Hosted Systems Engineer IV (VMware environment)
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RParker
Immortal
Immortal

I was guessing that the overhead of running the host Windows O/S would inevitably introduce a performance drag.

What's even more surprising is that Hyper-V runs quite well on Windows. Windows never WAS the problem in performance, it's always been drivers. That's why I defend Microsoft whenever people start the whole bashing process, because 3rd party developers are their own worst enemy. It's like having a mall with a lot of stores.

If Apple did it they would certify each one, and it would be THEIR product and development running it, but it would be more expensive.

MS would allow EACH store to do whatever they wanted, MS just provides the environment to work in and space.

There are pros and cons to both, but Windows problem wasn't performance, it's USERS that cause the system to drag because they weren't forced to do things correctly, like being administrators on a box, and in lieu of complicated security policies, Windows was designed to be user friendly and simple. Later people exploited it, but it's not really MS fault, developers of code were not held to a higher standard. Now that's changing, and things are better, but Apple is FAR from perfect. They have their own issues that we never hear, simply because MS is a much bigger player.

ESX is the same way, the hardware is the space and work environment, Windows manages those stores. ESX does the same thing, but in much more enforced, strict manner. ESX is more limited to what hardware you can install it, Windows is more forgiving, but both are at the mercy of the hardware. Neither restrict or limit performance. If the hardware can do virtualization, it will run as fast as the VM's can manage.

So in principle we could continue to use our Windows Server environments for VMWare Server hosts, and simply increase the hardware specs to improve performance? That would be extremely convenient.

Yes that is correct, VM Ware and Microsoft compete on the same platform but at different levels. VM Ware says they have a higher consolidation (meaning denser population) in the same space as MS, which is true. VM Ware (ESX) can share memory. Hyper-V cannot.

But then Hyper-V is certified to run on a wider range of hardware (even older). If it can run Windows 2008 it can run Hyper-V.

There have also been performance tests done, Hyper-V is just as fast as ESX, but ESX can do MORE on the same host, that's where the ROI comes in, you save on hardware, but you have to BUY new hardware that's on that VM Ware list, which is why during times of tightening budgets, people will seek out Hyper-V, no hardware refresh is necessary.

nhiservices
Contributor
Contributor

Many thanks for the detailed advice. Since these are development/test platforms I was looking for something closer to the £1k mark (UK pounds) if possible. I'm also apprehensive about trying to run more than one VM on the same tin, as our app suite is quite resource-intensive (even in test mode). I was thinking of dedicating one server to each VM, at least initially, to mitigate the risk that a single server would not have the memory/CPU/disk resources to support two concurrent workloads.

Is VMWare Server smart enough to take full advantage of quad-core CPU's if you run 2 VM's on the same box for example?

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RParker
Immortal
Immortal

I'm also apprehensive about trying to run more than one VM on the same tin, as our app suite is quite resource-intensive (even in test mode).

Over time your comfort level for this will be much easier to accept. You will realize shortly that not only is this possible, but running 30 or 40 VM's (even if they are intensive as you say) is quite the normal pattern.

Newer hardware, especially the 6 core processors can MORE than handle many VM's. Your fear will subside once you see how well virtualization performs

Is VMWare Server smart enough to take full advantage of quad-core CPU's if you run 2 VM's on the same box for example?

Again this is a hardware level function. If windows can see all the cores, VM Ware is a service, it will inherit the cores as a result. You are limited to how many CPU you can run in a VM, but ALL the VM's are threaded across all the cores on the hardware. So yes it will take FULL advantage of the technology.

You will probably be quite surprised to find out that even very intensive processes aren't as intense as you see on physical hardware. VM's are very pure environments (no oem drivers or extra software needed). So by removing these barriers, software runs a lot smoother and better, and VM's can actually be less overhead than what you would expect for similar physical systems.

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>But then Hyper-V is certified to run on a wider range of hardware (even older). If it can run Windows 2008 it can run Hyper-V.

Actually not 100% true. Windows 2008 can run on 32bit hardware, Windows 2008 R2 only on 64 bit hardware, but both versions can run on CPUs without VT-x. But VT-x is a must for Hyper-V.

If we look on all other devices like motherboards, controllers etc - then yes, you're right.


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