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May 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 5
Virtualization Reality

Virtual Appliances Easy Access for Everyone

A few years ago VMware created a site called the VMware virtual marketplace, a place where VMware users could find and download pre-built virtual machines with specific applications or designed for specific needs.

Back then the most common virtual machines on the marketplace were pre-packaged Linux systems with pre-configured applications and tools such as Gallery, iptables and MySQL. The marketplace concept and these pre-packaged tools were built on the idea that virtual machines were portable, easy to build and distribute, and someone somewhere had probably already done what you were trying to do. For those of us that needed quick open source tools and were well accustomed to running VMware, it was the first place we looked for systems before we built them from scratch; it made life easier. Someone who isn’t a regular Linux user can be quite intimidated by building a complete system to host pictures with Gallery, yet installing VMware, downloading a pre-built Gallery virtual machine, and getting it up and running and serving pictures is trivial and relatively painless. The virtual machine marketplace gave IT a reason to start playing with virtualization (if they weren’t already).

Fast forward to the present and VMware is still running that same virtual marketplace, although now the marketplace is under a larger VMware Virtual Appliances umbrella that includes services and other tools. In the current marketplace, however, the available virtual machine choices are a far cry from the simple Linux machines we used to download (although those are still available and plentiful). Today you can download and purchase full-blown enterprise-class virtual systems, ranging from virtualized storage adapters to e-mail systems and security scanning software to data center management applications. In particular, one class of virtual machines that is becoming more popular is the virtual hardware appliance. This is a traditional hardware solution that has been encapsulated in a virtual machine and is available as software to run on VMware’s virtualization platforms.

Typically hardware appliances in the data center run very specific tasks, such as security (anti-spam, network firewalls, application firewalls) and networking (application delivery controllers, load balancers, routers) appliances. Hardware requires up-front planning; it’s not something someone can simply download and start evaluating on a whim. If an enterprise wanted to test these appliances, they had to work with a vendor or a VAR to get loaner or demo hardware and use that hardware for both learning a new system and for testing the features in their environment. Once deployed, using this hardware for internal development, test and QA environments required either using production hardware for testing (never a good idea) or purchase of additional hardware (doubling the capital expense for both production and test) to clone the production environment.

The cloned architecture dilemma becomes most apparent when rolling out a new application within an enterprise. Before applications are available to end users they traverse a long series of internal steps known as the application lifecycle. The application lifecycle starts with design, moves through development and test, and finally moves to production. This lifecycle holds true whether an enterprise is building its own application or purchasing and integrating an application from external vendors. Historically it’s been a challenge to incorporate hardware appliances in this lifecycle due to the double hardware overhead. Virtual appliances change that, however, granting access to typical hardware solutions via virtualized software to all departments in the enterprise and throughout the entire application lifecycle. Now IT can simply download the appliance and start testing right away throughout the enterprise.

Virtual appliances for networking tasks, such as virtualized load balancers, are excellent examples of how to use virtual appliances throughout the application lifecycle. Once deployed, applications in the data center will sit behind multiple application hardware appliances, be they load balancers, firewalls, authentication devices, etc. These devices are very rarely available during design and development, and the end result is typically an application that has been designed for one type of networking environment yet is ultimately deployed in a completely different environment. By using virtual appliances throughout the entire application lifecycle, virtualization is literally bringing these tools to the masses. The architecture group can begin designing and developing the new applications with the virtual appliances from day one, streamlining the application lifecycle from creation through deployment.

Regardless of whether you’re downloading virtual machines to play with or downloading production-ready software versions of hardware appliances, the idea of pre-packaged virtual machines for a particular task is an excellent example of why virtualization has become so prevalent throughout the enterprise: It removes the barrier to entry for much of IT. Ease of access and deployment of virtual appliances are turning regular people into IT administrators and allowing groups throughout the enterprise to use the same dedicated hardware IT had deployed in production in their own micro dev and testing environments. IT

Alan Murphy is technical marketing manager of management and virtualization solutions with F5 Networks (News - Alert) (

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