My Top 5 new features in vSphere 5.1:
(5) ESXi 5.1 comes with hardware accelerated 3D Graphics support. That means it is able to virtualize the Graphics Processing Unit(s) (GPU) of the host and provide it to a VM as a vGPU. This greatly enhances the graphics capabilities of the VM and let's it even use the GPU for computing tasks that are not display related. This clearly targets VDI scenarios and will enhance the capabilities of virtual workstations. Hardware support is currently limited to nVIDIA GPUs.
(4) vSphere Replication is now available independently from SRM. vSphere Replication allows it to (asynchronously) mirror a VM to another datastore so that it can be restarted there when the primary storage fails. So far you could use vSphere Replication only together with the Site Recovery manager (SRM) product, but with vSphere 5.1 it is now usable with vSphere only, and the best thing is: It is included in all licensed vSphere editions and does not require extra licensing. A great accommodation to the SMB market!
(3) The Web client is now the primary client for vCenter. The Web Client exists with vSphere 5.0 already, but offers only a subset of the regular fat client's features. With vSphere 5.1 the Web Client is now fully featured, and any new functionality is even implemented in the Web client only! Great news for Linux and Apple shops that were asking and hoping for a native (or platform independent) client for their preferred OS for years now.
(2) Zero downtime VMware Tools Upgrade. VMware claims that once you have the new VMware tools of vSphere 5.1 installed in a VM then you can later upgrade that to any newer version without rebooting a VM. Upgrading VMware Tools has always been a pain topic for VMware administrators, because it usually requires a reboot of the guest OS, so you needed to schedule a downtime of the machine and the application it is hosting. However, I am skeptical: The feature is only available for VMs running Windows Vista or later. And I wonder: How is it possible to update a Windows device driver that is in use? I am concerned about e.g. pvscsi and vmxnet3 device drivers that most people preferably use with the latest Windows versions. If a new version of the VMware Tools comes with a newer version of these drivers will it really be possible to do the upgrade without a reboot?
... and now my No. 1 top new feature of vSphere 5.1 ...
(1) Enhanced VMotion (aka Shared nothing migration). Up to now there was VMotion that allows to live migrate a VM from one host to another. And there was Storage VMotion that allows to live migrate a VM from one datastore to another (while staying on the same host). Enhanced VMotion combines these two and allows to migrate a VM from one host to another and to a different storage at the same time without the need to power off the VM! This enables you to live migrate a VM between different clusters (that usually do not share any storage) or even between different stand alone hosts that each use local storage only. Another great feature that makes the administrator's life much easier!
Microsoft bragged about having this feature in their new Hyper-V 3.0 product (they call it "Shared nothing migration") and claimed that this would be a unique feature among virtualization competition. Now it looks like VMware will be the first to have it in an actually released product (Both Hyper-V 3.0 and vSphere 5.1 are not yet generally available, let's see who will be faster ...).
And now for some less known features that are hidden in the release notes documents, but have not yet caused great sensation:
- Networking improvement #1: You can now assign MAC addresses from arbitrary vendor ranges to a VM. So far they were limited to the vendor suffixes that VMware owned (plus a vCenter specific identifier in the range of 0 - 63) which left "only" 65536 possible MAC addresses per vCenter instance. VMware finds that this is not enough for large Cloud implementations.
- Networking improvement #2: Virtual switches (I guess this will be limited to distributed switches) now support LACP for uplink aggregation.
- Security: Full shell access to ESXi is no longer limited to the local root account. So far, though you could log in to the shell with another account, you needed to use su to switch to the root account to really make use of the shell. This is no longer necessary which will greatly enhance security.
- Autodeploy enhancements: To address availability concerns with Autodeploy (it currently uses PXE boot only for booting ESXi hosts which introduces a critical dependency to network availability and the Autodeploy server) VMware has now added two new operating modes: Stateless caching allows to use a local disk as a fallback if PXE boot fails. Stateful install uses Autodeploy only for the initial deployment of the host, and after that the hosts will regularly boot from a local device.
- Storage improvement #1: Space Efficient Sparse Virtual Disk is a new virtual disk type (besides the known thick and thin provisioned types). It allows shrinking virtual disks by reclaiming unused space through virtual SCSI UNMAP commands. Very cool ...
- Storage improvement #2: VMware further improved ESXi's handling of APD (All Paths Down) and PDL (Permanent Device Loss) conditions. Hopefully this will finally put an end to the effect of ESXi hosts disconnecting from vCenter because of storage connectivity problems.
- Platform enhancements: VHV (Virtual Hardware Virtualization) is the ability to make the hardware virtualization features of a CPU available to a VM. In enables and greatly enhances the possibility to run a Hypervisor inside a Hypervisor. VHV has been around for a while, but with ESXi 5.1 it was further improved and is now configurable via the Web Client. With ESXi 5.1 it is now possible to use Microsoft's XP mode (that is based on their VirtualPC product) inside a Windows 7 (or 8) VM!
Last but not least, here are some links to relevant release notes documents and white papers:
- What’s New in VMware vSphere 5.1
- What’s new in VMware vCenter 5.1
- What’s New in VMware vSphere 5.1 – Networking
- What’s New in VMware vSphere 5.1 – Platform
- What’s New in VMware vSphere 5.1 – Storage
- What’s New in VMware vSphere 5.1 – Performance
- Introduction to VMware vSphere Replication
- Introduction to VMware vSphere Data Protection
- What’s new in VMware vSphere Storage Appliance
- What’s new in vCloud Director 5.1
- Pricing Document