vApps in vSphere 4, and why they’re very, very useful

The week before last I attended the vSphere 4 Design Workshop at QA in Reading and came across something I’ve rarely actually seen in use… vApps. It’s not something that many people pay attention to I don’t think, but in all honesty, they’re pretty awesome when you think about it even for internal use, in fact, the only place I’ve seen them is when downloading pre-built appliances from the marketplace… They’ve certainly made me re-think a few things…

Imagine this:

You have several ESX hosts running a bunch of virtual machines, and for some reason the power fails in the middle of the night and the UPS systems don’t have enough power to last until you get to the office in the morning (I’m talking worst case here basically, and you should have far more protection than that ideally)…

When you come in the next morning (if you haven’t had a call in the middle of the night), and your systems are finally powered on, you’re going to have to boot each virtual machine to restore the network’s functionality, taking the usual route of Domain Controllers first, then mail servers, file servers, print servers so on and so forth until the network is operational again, each one being booted manually, or via some sort of PowerCLI script perhaps? Well, what if you could make that process 30 times easier? Well then, go take a look at vApps…

A vApp for all intents are purposes is a container of one, or more, virtual machines. BUT, what you can do with a vApp is specify boot order of the machines within that vApp… So, for instance, we all know that to boot an Exchange server we need Active Directory and DNS servers to be operational right?

Well… create a vApp, add the Domain Controllers, DNS servers and Exchange Mailbox Server, as well as the Exchange CAS server (just drag and drop them in the vCenter console). Edit the vApp’s settings and you’ll find a tab called “Start Order”. Now, here you’ll find some “Groups” and all of the VM’s you added are probably listed in their own group. Make sure that your VM’s are listed in the correct order (use the up and down arrows), so that Domain Controllers at the top, and the mailbox server at the bottom in this case. Now, if you put two machines in the same group, they’ll boot at the same time, otherwise it’s a top to bottom list (and reverse for shut down). My preference here is to change the settings for each VM so that the next machine will boot once VMware tools has loaded in the VM, so, tick the “VMware Tools are ready” check box. Whilst you’re doing this, set the “Shutdown Action” to “Guest Shutdown”.

That’s it… now that the machines are in a vApp and the start order is set, all you have to do is power on the vApp and it’ll then automatically boot each VM in turn, waiting for either 2 minutes to pass (that’s the default which can be changed) or for VMware Tools to be started by the OS. Simple huh?

Now… I hear you say “But I have power on options for when my hosts boot”… yeah, but… what happens when DRS or manual vMotion is implemented and the VM is moved to another host, oh  yeah, it loses that setting for eternity (or at least until you manually add the rule on the host again)…

Oh… and you can nest vApps too…

Taking the previous example, you may want to segregate Exchange from the Domain Controllers to allow you to easily power on or shut down each type of system separately (for maintenance for example), so just create 3 vApps: one as a “Master”, one for the Domain Controllers, and the third for the Exchange Servers. Populate the latter two with the correct virtual machines, and set the start order and shut down options as before, giving you two vApps that are independent of each other. Now, drag those vApps into the “Master” vApp and set the start order here too, with your DC’s vApp in a group higher than the Exchange Servers vApp. You don’t get the same options here, as the settings from the nested vApps will still apply. You now have an easy method to boot just the domain controllers, just the Exchange Servers, or the whole lot in one click, or shut them down in reverse order too. Nice!

That’s not the only benefit, there’s a couple more…

vApps also give you another security boundary. You can create roles that have access to specific tasks with vApps, so you can give “Power On” rights to a member of the IT Department who may not have any other access, but in an emergency, can still boot specific vApps and therefore boot the VM’s in the correct sequence.

They also have built-in resource pools, so all the usual benefits still apply here too, and yes, you can nest resource pools inside vApps too if you really want or need to!

Now, this does alter the way VM’s appear in the vCenter console, much to my own disappointment in fact. The “Hosts and Clusters” view doesn’t change much, other than the fact that each vApp becomes another level to expand in the console, but, the VM’s and Templates view is changed. Now, in the left hand pane where the VM’s used to reside, you can only see the vApps, and to see which VM’s are in which vApps you have to click on the vApp and then on the “Virtual Machines” tab. Why a vApp in this view doesn’t act as a folder I don’t know, especially when it does in the “Hosts and Clusters” view, which doesn’t usually show folders!!

From a disaster recovery scenario, and from a systems maintenance point of view, I think vApps are fantastic… Being able to boot all of my machines in one click, and also having the option to shut them all down the same way is fantastic, moving servers, or having to shut them down for electrical systems maintenance makes life easier, and that’s the whole idea of virtualization isn’t it?

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