Are big boxes better for server virtualisation?

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From time to time, someone will ask me if it makes sense to purchase a large (32+ CPU) server as a big virtualisation host running a VMware, Microsoft, or Citrix hypervisor.

In a word, I think the answer is "no".

Here are a few reasons why:

  • First, very few virtualisation users that I’m aware of have selected anything larger than 4-socket systems. Massive servers with 32 processors simply cost too much on a per-VM basis, and since you end up dividing them up into smaller virtual machines, there’s not much benefit to go with a massive system. Most hypervisors don’t support more than four virtual processors per virtual machine (including VMware -- you have to purchase the top-of-the-line Enterprise Plus to get 8-way virtual SMP).
  • Second, many of the HA features in large SMP systems can be provided by clustering or live migration capabilities in software.
  • Third, having all that capacity in one box used to make it easier to reallocate resources between partitions -- but live migration across physical boxes makes that unnecessary as well.
  • Lastly, some vendors have claimed that virtual environments built on big servers are easier to manage, since there are fewer physical endpoints to worry about. I think this is an older argument that dates back to when people purchased a Sun E10K to run a large number of websites. Ultimately, more automated management tools made it possible to run large numbers of scale-out servers at a similar cost.

Even among modular servers, there is some debate as to how big of a box you need. The recent release of the Intel Xeon 5500 allows you to manage a lot more memory with fewer physical CPUs. In order to provide the maximum amount of memory to their VMs, many companies purchased more processors than they needed -- simply so they could get enough RAM.

Systems were still mostly memory bound, so with the release of the new Xeon 5500 that can address more DIMMS, we think that some firms will temporarily swing back towards systems with fewer CPUs. Plus, the CPUs have gotten much faster -- recent demonstrations by Intel are showing the new Xeon 5500-based servers running twice the workload of their prior models.

By Galen Schreck

Check out Galen's research.

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