This year I didn’t attend VMworld for the first time in many years, and I didn’t really follow the news flow coming from the keynote. But this one is particularly interesting to me and is worth a comment. In fact, as you probably already know, I’m a fan of ARM architectures both in the datacenter and at the edge, and seeing Vmware investing in this direction is quite exciting.
Trying to get a complete picture
The news is still sketchy. I looked for articles and comments but there isn’t a lot out there yet.
In practice, ESXi on ARM, is still in development and not available to everybody and no, you can’t install it on your Raspberry Pi (even if it would be uber cool!!!!). As far as I know at the moment, hardware support is limited to a development platform based on Marvell’s 64bit Cavium processors, but this is enough to spark interest and expectations… Especially because Marvell is really strong in component manufacturing for embedded systems.
The focus of this hypervisor is on FT (fault tolerance) and high availability, and it makes a lot of sense for edge applications. Today, ARM is missing something like a robust hypervisor and it is clear that everybody wants to match the efficiency of this CPU architecture with mission critical applications at the edge (such as power plants, military applications, healthcare and so on).
ESXi on ARM is meant to run ARM code only, do not expect to see any sort of x86 emulation or Windows server running on it. At least not yet. In fact, Windows (10) on ARM is around the corner and, as far as I know, an internal version of Windows Server for ARM already exists… If ESXi on ARM gets some attention from end users, OEMs and other vendors, that one could become an option too.
Looking at the future
The entire IT industry is looking at ARM as an alternative for Intel CPUs, you can see attempts to swap one CPU with the other in many fields now, starting from HPC and large cloud providers. And ESXi on ARM is another blow to Intel’s supremacy. Yes, nothing that will destabilize the CPU giant at the moment… but, again, a sign that the industry is changing.
ARM is less powerful than x86, but far more power efficient and good for many workloads, especially for those requiring high parallelized tasks, many concurrent threads and rack density. This is why ARM is way better than x86 on mobile and edge applications.
Vmware was also very cautions, and specified that ESXi for ARM is meant *ONLY* for Edge applications, for now. From my point of view they’re right, but it is also true that they have it now and if demand arises they can give it to their datacenter customers very quickly.
The missing pieces
I bet that Storage and Networking layers are still in the early stages of development and you can’t expect fancy products like VSAN or NSX any time soon.
Persistent Data Storage is still an issue for most Industrial IoT and Edge computing stacks, and far from being solved. ESXi won’t be an exception. Traditional shared storage systems are not designed to work at the edge or in IoT environments and Internal storage alone does not provide the necessary high availability features you’d expect. In fact, it’s quite useless to have a Hypervisor focused on high availability and fault tolerance if the storage layer does not provide it in the first place!
As I’ve said many times in the past, an HCI-like scale-out approach will come naturally for edge applications. If you already have a bunch of compute nodes at the edge, it’s way easier to add storage in them than managing external systems. This storage layer, similar to what you get today with VSAN or other similar products specifically designed for edge applications like StorMagic, will be focused on resiliency and high availability too, with a particular focus on data replication and cloud DR functionalities.
I’m also curious to know more about which management tools will be available with this product…
Closing the circle
ESXi on ARM is really exciting and I can’t wait to dig deeper into it. I know it isn’t the ESXi we know and it isn’t meant for datacenter workloads (yet). But let me dream a little about it for the future.
ARM ecosystem is getting more and more pervasive. It’s the predominant CPU in mobile and IoT devices with PCs that will probably follow suit soon. Edge computing is next. Is the datacenter still out of reach? If we look at traditional enterprises yes, but HPC and large hyperscalers are already working with it and usually they are a few years ahead in new technology adoption.