Using VMware Server as our new server platform

When we first heard about the free VMware Server, we got really excited. We have been planning to replace our aging servers with some new hardware and thought about reducing the server count. Besides our internet server which is located at our provider, we have three internal servers working as a file server, intranet and database server, source control server, mail server, SUS server, domain controller and a bunch of other things. Three servers may sound a lot for just two users, but we wanted to separate things a bit for security and performance reasons.

Now that VMware Server is going to be released for free, we are thinking about getting a nice dual-core server with 4 GB RAM and just hosting different servers with VMware. I see some advantages of using VMware Server instead of using separate boxes:

  • Adding a new server is just a click away as long as there is enough free RAM and general performance available
  • Backing up the different servers becomes ridiculous easy with VMware, as we can just burn the virtual machine images to DVDs
  • The hardware is used much more economically as we just need one really fast server which should be enough even when the server is under high load

Some services such as the file server will still be running on the native Windows server for performance reasons. But all non-Windows services like our email and intranet servers will run on Linux or FreeBSD virtual machines.

Has anyone used something like this before? I know that Mike Gunderloy is using a VMware GSX server for his server infrastructure and he seems to be happy with it. He wrote on his blog:

“For example, I’ve taken a single Dell 1850 dual-processor server and used VMware GSX to simultaneously run a Subversion server, a Cruise Control .NET server, a Windows Software Update Services server, a Data Protection Manager Server, and several more servers – without the hassles of worrying about whether any of that software will conflict or fight over ports. In addition to keeping the software separate, this also enables me to make much better use of server hardware by running it at a higher average load, which in turn means paying for less hardware.”

If anyone has experience with such a system and can report on the performance of such a setup, it would be great if you could comment on it.

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  1. Baruch
    Posted February 24, 2006 at 11:46 | Permalink

    I’m not using VMware, but I use a similar setup with Xen for Linux only machines.

    Xen is a free-software solution similar but different from VMware. It is similar in intent and different in the underlying technical issues. It requires a modified OS, the Xen 3.0 will work with Intel VT extensions to run unmodified OSes, but that will only be possible mid-year when Intel starts to actually ship VT enabled processors.

    I’m using virtual machines for local servers, the current setup is a gateway machine that has the firewall, external dns and internal dhcp/dns each of these on a seperate VM. It works very nicely, I don’t see any performance issues (it’s a 2.8 Ghz machine with only 256MB ram).

    The plan is to get us two Dell 2850 machines, stick them with three drives for RAID-1, two active and one standby. Have one machine do the Webserver in a VM, put the firewall/dns/dhcp VMs on the second machine and be able to failover from one machine to the other in case of hardware troubles.

    Backup will be done by copying the VM file systems between the two machines and partial relying on the RAID-1 arrays. The 2850 is chosen over 1850 because we want the passive failover drive for RAID-1.

    All this setup is in an academic setting and not a micro-ISV, and the money is not my concern. It will probably need to be scaled down some for a MicroISV setting.

    Assuming the money is there I’d go for a single 2850 with RAID-5 or RAID-6 to protect against disk failures. (we had plenty of those lately this is the reason we are so paranoid about disks now).

  2. Posted February 24, 2006 at 19:40 | Permalink

    Thanks for your insights Baruch. We already planned to get RAID in the new server to protect us against data loss. We lost so many disks over the last couple of years, that we wouldn’t trust a single hard disk on its own anymore.

    I’m positive that the performance will work for us (I’m even more optimistic when I read your comment). XEN certainly looks interesting, but I’m more comfortable using VMware at the moment (and we need a Windows server, too).

    I think the new VMware Server also benefits from Intel’s VT extension and the new dual-core Intel CPU’s should already have it.

  3. Nachoguy
    Posted March 1, 2006 at 00:29 | Permalink

    You do not want VMware server. At least not yet. What they have released is beta, though they don’t come right out and say it. It comes in debugging mode (something that you cannot currently turn off) which causes a server hosting 4 idle virtual machines to have a load average of 2. It looks promising, but right now, it is of little to no use. My advice: if you’re looking at the Intel VT chips anyway, go Xen, it will support windows if you have VT chips.

  4. Posted March 5, 2006 at 02:36 | Permalink

    Thanks for the hint Nachoguy. We already knew about the beta status of the VMware Server and planned to use it only after the beta ended (it will be free after the beta, too). We just hope the beta doesn’t last too long (normally around 2-3 months for VMware products as far as I can tell).

  5. Posted April 8, 2006 at 17:50 | Permalink

    I’m just like you. I have 2 servers in my home office (file + sql + iis + ad + dns) and planning on a 3rd server to use as a public web server (iis + sql) for some personal projects. I develop website and database applications for companies and I need all these servers to test all my products before they go in live production environments.

    It’s already noisy in my office from these 2 servers running 24×7. And I’m not really excited getting a 3rd server that will add to the noise (and heat).

    I’ve been evaluating VMWare Virtual Server (the former GSX that is now provided FREE). I can tell you, it’s like running in native mode! I highly recommend it!

    Some tips:

    1. 512MB won’t cut it. A server with at least 1GB ram provides a 10x increase in performance from one that is 512MB. I am now planning on increasing my RAM to 4GB, the max on my server. (Registered ECC RAM are very expensive!)

    2. I’m running RAID 5 (4 x 200GB) using Promise SX-4060 controller. This also made a big difference in VMWare’s performance compared to a solo hard disk. And hardware RAID 5 is so much faster than software RAID 1.

    3. I love that I can shutdown a vm server, copy the files to another server, and restart it from the 2nd server. The vm is now running on a different server. Think about this… build all your email, ad, dns, sql servers on a VM… buy a faster machine down the road, and move the vm’s to the faster machine in a few minutes. No more re-installing and reconfiguring servers on the new machine.

    4. After I built my first vm with all the service packs and windows update, I saved it as a template. In the future, if I need a new windows server, I just copy the template to a new directory, rename, change IP address and I’m up and running.

    5.I’m left with 2 physical servers, but now, there are several virtual servers running in those 2 physical servers. Down the road, I may upgrade to a dual opteron, dual core. But for now, my (2) servers with dual 1.0 Ghz PIII servers are sufficient for my needs.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Posted April 8, 2006 at 19:27 | Permalink

    Thanks for the tips Rowel, they are very helpful. We already planned for 4 GB RAM in the machine as we want to run at least 3-4 virtual machines on top of the Windows server.

    I will post some details of the hardware that we use and how our experience with the performance is when we have it all running.

  7. Joe Goldthwaite
    Posted May 3, 2006 at 01:03 | Permalink

    I’ve been doing some testing on the configuration you’re talking about. I built a new system based on the dual core Athlon FX-60 with 4gb of ECC ram. I’ve run into two problems.

    When I try to run the virtual machines in dual processor mode, things slow down really fast. I wasn’t able to run more than two virtual machines at a time. When I ran three, it really slowed down. It was kind of strange. I’d run the Windows performance monitor in the virtual machines and on the real server. The virtual machines were running at 2% to 5% utilization while the real machine was locked at 100%. I was able to get around that problem by running the virtual machines in single processor mode.

    I also ran into a problem with memory. When my virtual machines memory requirements were running about 2.6 gigabytes, everything seemed to run fine. When I tried to add another virtual machine with a 1 gb memory requirement, things slowed down again. In theory, I was leaving 400mb for the real machine but it seems to need more than that. It’s also strange because the memory utilization of the real server never when much over 2gb. That may be a Windows problem since I’m not using the 64 bit version.

    These may be beta related issues. I’d imagine they’ll work really hard to get the dual processor problem fixed. I just thought you’ll like to hear about my experiences.

  8. Posted May 10, 2006 at 14:35 | Permalink

    Great to read some actual experiences with our planned hardware, thanks Joe. We will probably only use one of the CPU cores for the VMware’s and the other one for the host OS, so this isn’t much of an issue for us. The RAM issue might be more problematic.

    We will share our experience with our system when we have it running. We didn’t really have time for it in the last couple of weeks so we will hopefully have the time to order it and set it up in the next 1-2 weeks.