VMware has launched an upgrade to its core software platform with the message that virtualisation is ready to run any class of enterprise application, no matter how large.

"Virtualisation is the mainframe for the 21st century," said Stephen Herrod, VMware's CTO, at an event to launch the company's new vSphere 4 software, an update to Virtual Infrastructure 3, at its headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

VMware says the software will allow companies to transform their data centres into a "virtual compute cloud," where applications can be moved fluidly across compute, network and storage resources to wherever capacity is available. It's due for release by the end of the quarter.

VMware's goal Tuesday was to convince customers that virtualisation, widely used for server consolidation and to set up test and development environments, is now reliable and scalable enough to run large databases and other critical applications.

The message was hammered home by a lineup of industry bigwigs that included Michael Dell, Cisco's John Chambers, Intel senior Vice President Pat Gelsinger, and Joe Tucci, chairman of EMC, which owns a stake in VMware.

"We can see from the demonstrations and the testimonials today that there are no applications - no applications - that can't be run in a virtualised environment," Tucci said.

At the heart of VMware's claim are new performance capabilities in vSphere. The software can now manage a cluster of computers with up to 32 physical servers, 2,048 processor cores and 32TB of RAM, according to VMware. Perhaps more importantly for database applications, VMware says it has doubled the maximum I/O operations its software can perform, to more than 200,000 per second.

In a jab at the big systems vendors, VMware assembled a group of servers by the stage, including a Sun Sparc machine, to show how much capacity can now run in a vSphere cluster. A handwritten sign on the Sun machine had the word IBM crossed out and replaced with Oracle, which just beat IBM in a deal to acquire Sun.

VMware CEO Paul Maritz took another jab at IBM, sometimes called a pioneer of virtualisation because of its use of the technology in its mainframes.

"Even IBM, which likes to claim to be the inventor of virtualisation, didn't fully realise and anticipate what could have been done with this technology," Maritz said. "It's not about individual machines but about how groups of servers relate to each other."

Beyond the hype and the bluster, some analysts and customers at the event said there is some validity to VMware's claims. Thanks to enhancements in Intel's new Nehalem processors, as well as the improvements in vSphere, virtualised servers can now run much more demanding applications, said Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with Burton Group.

"All companies should be asking, not why should I virtualise this application, but why shouldn't I virtualise it?" he said.

But VMware still doesn't provide all the management capabilities needed to treat a cluster of industry-standard servers as if it were a mainframe or large Unix system, he said.
For example, VMware DRS, a tool that monitors the CPU and memory usage in a pool of servers to identify the most efficient place to run a virtual machine, still does not take into account other aspects such as I/O utilisation.

And while Maritz talked about interoperability and the danger of "lock-in" from other cloud providers, vSphere cannot be used to manage hypervisors from Microsoft and Citrix Systems. VMware says there isn't enough demand for those platforms in the market yet to justify its investment to support them.

VSphere 4 also adds fault tolerance capabilities; thin storage provisioning, which allows less physical storage to be allocated to a virtual machine; storage vMotion, for switching an application between storage systems while it is still running; and a "distributed switch" developed with Cisco.

Big companies aren't VMware's only target. VSphere includes a new edition, vSphere Essentials, that starts at $995 (£680) for three servers. Small companies can virtualise a pool of three or four servers, so that a workload can fail over to a different system in the event of a hardware failure, Maritz said. The high-end edition of vSphere, Enterprise Plus, starts at $3,495 per CPU.