Why Am I Still Buying Physical Servers?

Why am I still buying physical servers?

1. Services that require specialized internal hardware.

Some of our applications require internal PCIe cards for FAX capabilities. One even requires a modem. It might be possible to virtualize these things using VMDirectPath, but that breaks VMotion and we really like VMotion. I wish application designers would use cloud-based services for these things, like an Internet-based FAX provider or emailing PDFs. In the modem case, I wish they’d learn how this new-fangled Internet thing works.

2. Services that require specialized external hardware.

USB dongles will be the death of me. Applications that keep their licenses on a USB dongle? We’ve got some. Application that has a USB serial dongle for talking to the voice mail system? We’ve got one of those, too. I’d love to virtualize hosts like these, but the networked USB hubs I’ve tried just aren’t reliable or secure.[0] There’s always the idea that an application vendor might stop putting license keys on dongles, but I’m not holding my breath. After all, all of us big companies are big software pirates, too.

3. Appliances.

Lots of applications still ship in appliance form, custom hardware running some custom, hacked-up OS on top of which an application exists which you can’t back up, you can’t manage the performance of, and you can’t patch or even assess the security of. Why can’t these things be virtual appliances? I have to believe that appliance vendors would see massive savings in support and development costs by switching to industry-standard virtual machine formats.

4. Oracle.

Very few products from Oracle are supported in VMware vSphere, and since support for big enterprise systems is important it’s really hard to justify virtualizing any of it. Oracle’s solution for virtualization, Oracle VM, is basically equivalent to where VMware was five years ago, and even if it was an acceptable virtualization solution why would you want to run two virtual environments? Managing one is hard enough. We are starting to see more movement towards virtualization-indifferent databases, like Microsoft SQL Server and MySQL, but the inertia of big enterprise systems is great. So we keep buying hardware.


[0] I’m entertaining suggestions for networked USB options, by the way. The last one I tried was a Digi Anywhere USB and it hasn’t been very reliable. We can still see it on the network, but it just won’t work with a device anymore. Besides, we had to have a 1-to-1 mapping between an Anywhere USB and a VM, for security reasons. I’d love a solution where I could assign security controls per USB port.

14 thoughts on “Why Am I Still Buying Physical Servers?”

  1. ESX 4.1 supports direct USB passthrough (without VMDirectPath I/O) so hopefully that alleviates the blocking issues on #2. Most of these kinds of programs have moved onto a license server model, but of course there are tons of obnoxious vendors still out there.

    If you can’t wait, you can take advantage of the fact that while there’s no support for USB passthrough in any production ESX version yet, VMDirectPath I/O can pass an entire USB controller. Some people have had success with this, while others haven’t — it’s finicky and hardware-dependent, so your luck may vary with this approach.

    In either instance, you lose the ability to VMotion because you have physical hardware attached, but you can’t VMotion the existing physical hardware anyway.

  2. Also, I’m not sure if this is a route you’ve looked at for #1, but there’s a bunch of Google results out there for “virtual fax modem” that seem to be able to present IP-based fax/modem interfaces as physical serial-connected modems to the system, provided that the system runs Windows. I can’t vouch for how well they work, since I haven’t had a need for this kind of thing so far, but it seems to be a problem that people are at least attempting to tackle.

  3. Yeah, but I like that I have VMs that can VMotion, and physical hardware that can’t. Adding another class of service, “VMs that can’t VMotion,” is something I have to consider, and it throws a wrench into a lot of patching/maintenance window models (among other things). Oh well, I’ll stop whining. 🙂

  4. Jeff, the fax thing — yeah, the vendor doesn’t support any of that yet. They say they’re working on it, but now that we have physical hardware for their current software it’ll be a few years before we bother to change it up. 🙁

  5. Oh, and lastly, the other big sticking point with all of this is that once the vendors finally come around (license servers, etc.) we still need to upgrade. And in a lot of cases it’s a paid upgrade, so someone has to budget for it… What a mess. 🙂

  6. Why are we? Politics and funding. We are mostly horizontal in support of Windows Server/VMware/Hardware, so our application owners usually dictate the platform and the funding. Even though we continue to show the success of v12n, plenty of our customers (mainly via ISVs’ lack of willingness to support) still don’t want to put production workloads on virtual servers even after being told or shown the benefits.

  7. For USB over IP I’ve been using Lantronix’s UBox4100 (they’re phasing them out though). You can map each USB port to a separate machine. I am using it for dongles and a couple of USB modems that I am using for my fax server. I will say occasionally the devices will disconnect, but I haven’t had a chance to troubleshoot that. I am also using a Comtrol serial port over IP device for a bank of modems. Oddly it works fine with regular data communication, but I had issues when trying to send faxes through it (hence the USB fax modems).

  8. We used to have problems with some varieties of modem, and sending Faxes, back in the days of using SCSI-based serial ports.

    It was some sort of timing issue with certain models of modem (not cheap ones, but just where Fax clearly hadn’t been a priority – I think more work had to be done in the software talking to them) which showed up when connected via the SCSI serial ports, and it’s very likely that that sort of thing would still be going on in these days of USB modems. We were able to get different modems.

  9. The lack of support for VMware on Oracle is one of the biggest misconceptions in IT today. Oracle on VMware IS supported, it’s just not certified.

    Oracle Support note 249212.1:

    “Oracle has not certified any of its products on VMware virtualized environments. Oracle Support will assist customers running Oracle products on VMware in the following manner: Oracle will only provide support for issues that either are known to occur on the native OS, or can be demonstrated not to be as a result of running on VMware.

    If a problem is a known Oracle issue, Oracle support will recommend the appropriate solution on the native OS. If that solution does not work in the VMware virtualized environment, the customer will be referred to VMware for support. When the customer can demonstrate that the Oracle solution does not work when running on the native OS, Oracle will resume support, including logging a bug with Oracle Development for investigation if required.”

    Here’s VMware’s take:

    Pain in the tuchus? Sure, but it’s still supported. It’s difficult enough trying to explain the support situation to DBA’s who admenently refuse to “allow” Oracle DB on top of VMware, let along spreading disinformation amongst our fellow sysadmins.

    Love your blog Bob, you just struck a nerve. 😉

  10. Here’s another one to add to the list:

    5. Applications from vendors who don’t understand or support virtualisation.

    There are still vendors out there who refuse to support their apps if they happen to be running in a VM. Five years ago this would be understandable, but today? I’d think that you would run into more problems supporting an app on whatever random set of hardware it’s installed on, as opposed to the known environment of a VM, but hey, what would we know?

Comments are closed.