VMware is expected to launch vSphere 6, the latest version of its server virtualization platform, on February 2nd. It's a keenly awaited launch because it's the first major new version of the company's product since July 2011, when vSphere 5 was released.
While three and a half years isn't all that long a time, the server virtualization space has changed pretty dramatically over that period.
Back in 2011, the vSphere 5 launch was all about better server virtualization performance, the ability to run mission-critical applications using server virtualization technology and a little bit of automation of the management of data center resources.
It also saw the introduction of some new cloud technology in the form of vCloud Director 1.5 — not to mention a hugely unpopular licensing regime (remember the vTax, which VMware abandoned a year later?)
But basically vSphere 5 was all about size. vSphere 4 could only support comparatively puny virtual machines with 8 virtual processors, 256MB RAM, 30Gb/s and 300,000 IOPs, while the new version of vSphere supported "monster VMs": virtual machines with up to 32 virtual processors and 1TB of RAM, and with the ability to handle over 36Gb/s of network capacity and 1m IOPs.
So if you were to extrapolate from the past, you'd probably be guessing that vSphere 6 will introduce a hypervisor that introduces monster, monster VMs with hundreds of virtual processors and several terabytes of RAM.
But that's not what vSphere 6 will be about at all.
That's because no one's interested in monster, monster VMs — after all, once you can make a VM that's bigger than most physical machines you'd ever want to use, then what's the point?
And besides, virtualization has moved on from plain vanilla server virtualization to a whole story about software-defined data centers (SDDCs), software management systems and a blurring of the distinction between resources in your local data center, resources in remote data centers, and resources somewhere in a public cloud.
What We Do Know About VMware vSphere 6
So what will vSphere introduce with vSphere 6?
A few things have already been announced. These include enhancements to VMware's vMotion technology, which was arguably the technology responsible for VMware's large-scale enterprise adoption.
At the moment it's possible to carry out vMotion events within a cluster, or across clusters in the same data center and vCenter. The enhancements include the ability to carry out vMotion across data centers and virtual switches, across long distances. Long distances mean cross-continental US distances with RTTs (round-trip times) of up to 100ms.
Possible uses for this include multi-site load balancing and capacity utilization, follow-the-sun operations and even jumping out of the way of weather events and other looming disasters.
Using VMware's NSX network virtualization, network properties will also be vMotioned when using long distance vMotion.
VMware Fault Tolerance will also be beefed up so that, finally, it works on multi-processor VMs. In vSphere 6 it will support VMs with up to 4 vCPUs and 64GB of RAM, which may well see Fault Tolerance adopted more widely.
What We Don't Know About VMware vSphere 6
As for what we don't know, we can make informed guesses. The whole push of what VMware has being doing over the last year or so has been towards infrastructure management, so it is pretty much inconceivable that the company won't introduce some nifty features that will make it easier for customers to manage their data centers using VMware software.
In fact, it's wrong to think of traditional data centers, as VMware's thrust is towards hybrid data center / cloud environments. So expect the ability to deploy distributed clusters that span multiple sites and clouds — probably using vCloud Air, VMware's public cloud platform.
And there's likely to be other new features that focus on hybrid clouds, combining data center resources and the public cloud (maybe VMware public clouds, maybe all public clouds) in new ways, but what exactly all of these new features will be is impossible to predict with any useful degree of certainty.
But perhaps the biggest push is likely to be towards integrating all the acquisitions that VMware has made over the last three and a half years, like the AirWatch mobile device management solution the company acquired in January 2014 for about $1.5 billion, and Desktone, the desktop-as-a-service company it acquired in October 2013 for an undisclosed fee.
VMware will also be looking to further integrate Horizon 6, which delivers virtualized and remote desktops and applications through a single platform and provides end users with access to all of their Windows and online resources through one unified workspace.
Come February 2, all the secrets of vSphere 6 will finally be revealed. That's the expectation anyway.
There are bound to be several other surprises, but if most of them aren't about hybrid cloud environments and integrating and managing VMware's newly developed and acquired technologies, than that really would be surprising.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.