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A Rose by Any Other Name - Appliances Are More Than Systems

Once you virtualize an appliance, you have two things – a virtualized appliance AND a virtual computer

One of the majors Lori and my oldest son is pursuing is in philosophy. I’ve never been a huge fan of philosophy, but as he and Lori talked, I decided to find out more, and picked up one of The Great Courses on The Philosophy of Science to try and understand where philosophy split off from hard sciences and became irrelevant or an impediment. I wasn’t disappointed, for at some point in the fifties, a philosopher posed the “If you’re a chicken, you assume when the farmer comes that he will bring food, so the day he comes with an axe, you are surprised” question. Philosophers know this tale, and to them, it disproves everything, for by his argument, all empirical data is suspect, and all of our data is empirical at one level or another. At that point, science continued forward, and philosophy got completely lost. The instructor for the class updated the example to “what if the next batch of copper pulled out of the ground doesn’t conduct electricity?”

image This is where it shows that either (a) I’m a hard scientist, or (b) I’m too slow-witted to hang with the philosophers, because my immediate answer (and the one I still hold today) was “Duh. It wouldn’t be called copper.” For the Shakespearian lament “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” has a corollary. “Any other thing, when called a rose, would not smell as sweet”. And that’s the truth. If we pulled a metal out of the ground, and it looked like copper, but didn’t share this property or that property, while philosophers were slapping each other on the back and seeing vindication for years of arguments, scientists would simply declare it a new material and give it a name. Nothing in the world would change.

This is true of appliances too. Once you virtualize an appliance, you have two things – a virtualized appliance AND a virtual computer. This is significant, because while people have learned how many virtuals can be run on server X given their average and peak loads, the same doesn’t yet appear to be true about virtual appliances. I’ve talked to some, and seen email exchanges from other, IT shops that are throwing virtual appliances – be they a virtualized ADC like BIG-IP LTM VE from F5 or a virtualized Cloud Storage Gateway from someone like Nasuni – onto servers without considering their very special needs as a “computer”. In general, you can’t consider them to be “applications” or “servers”, as their resource utilization is certainly very different than your average app server VM. These appliances are built for a special purpose, and both of the ones I just used for reference will use a lot more networking resources than your average server, just being what they are.

Compliments of PDPhoto.org

When deploying virtualized appliances, think about what the appliance is designed to do, and start with it on a dedicated server. This is non-intuitive, and kind of defeats the purpose, but it is a temporary situation. Note that I said “Start with”. My reasoning is that the process of virtualizing the appliance changed it, and when it was an appliance, you didn’t care about its performance as long as it did the job. By running it on dedicated hardware, you can evaluate what it uses for resources in a pristine environment, then when you move it onto a server with multiple virtual machines running, you know what the “best case” is, so you’ll know just how much your other VMs are impacting it, and have a head start troubleshooting problems – the resource it used the most on dedicated hardware is certainly most likely to be your problem in a shared environment.

Appliances are generally more susceptible to certain resource sharing scenarios than a general-service server is. These devices were designed to perform a specific job and have been optimized to do that job. Putting it on hardware with other VMs – even other instances of the appliance – can cause it to degrade in performance because the very thing it is optimized for is the resource that it needs the most, be it memory, disk, or networking. Even CPUs, depending upon what the appliance does, can be a point of high contention between the appliance and whatever other VM is running.

imageIn the end, yes they are just computers. But you bought them because they were highly specialized computers, and when virtualized, that doesn’t change. Give them a chance to strut their stuff on hardware you know, without interference, and only after you’ve taken their measure on your production network (or a truly equivalent test network, which is rare), start running them on machines with select VMs. Even then, check with your vendor. Plenty of vendors don’t recommend that you run an virtualized appliance that was originally designed for high performance on shared hardware at all. Since doing so against your vendor’s advice can create support issues, check with them first, and if you don’t like the answer, pressure them either for details of why, or to change their advice. Yes, that includes F5. I don’t know the details of our support policy, but both LTM-VE and ARX-VE are virtualized versions of high-performance systems, so it wouldn’t surprise me if our support staff said “first, shut down all other VMs on the hardware...” but since we have multi-processing on VIPRION, it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t either.

It is no different than any other scenario, when it comes down to it, know what you have, and unlike philosophers, expect it to behave tomorrow like it does today, anything else is an error of some kind.

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Don MacVittie is founder of Ingrained Technology, A technical advocacy and software development consultancy. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing,DevOps, and IT management. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.