Virtualization continues to be a rapidly growing technology, and for many companies the question isn’t which servers should be virtualized. Instead, it’s which servers should not be virtualized. Nowadays in many organizations, virtualization is the norm, and you need to have a good reason not to virtualize. When it comes to virtualizing existing servers, you essentially have two choices: You can rebuild the server from scratch or you can use a Physical-to-Virtual (P2V) tool to automatically convert existing physical servers to virtual machines (VMs). Each method has its advantages. Most administrators prefer to rebuild servers from scratch whenever they can. This tends to be more reliable and prevents the inevitable registry corruption that occurs in Windows systems. However, that method is definitely more time and labor intensive. In addition, it opens the door to the possibility of omitting required components. In contrast, P2V is faster, the conversions can be automated, and the end result contains all the applications and data from the source system. However, any problems that may have been present in the source system will also be transferred to the target system. For many IT professionals, the savings in time and effort make these P2V products well worth the investment and trade-off. In this review, I’ll compare three of the leading P2V products: VMware’s Converter, Novell’s PlateSpin Migrate, and Quest’s vConverter.
The P2V Process
The P2V process takes the physical system and converts it to a virtual machine specification and to one or more virtual hard disks. However, you can’t just convert a physical hard disk to a virtual hard disk and expect the system to run. The P2V process must replace the hardware device drivers that are used in the physical machine with new device drivers that will work with the targeted virtualization platform. It’s worth noting that this “hardware” change often results in the need to reactivate the converted operating system (OS). In reviewing these tools, I considered the range of their support for the current virtualization platforms. I also assessed each product in terms of its viability in performing P2V conversions, in converting between different virtual platforms, in customizing the guest image that is being converted, and in automating the conversion process.
VMware vCenter Converter
VMware offers both a free stand-alone version of its Converter product and a version that is a plug-in to vCenter. The primary difference is that the stand-alone converter is used on a pay-per-support-incident basis, while support for the integrated vCenter Converter is included with the vSphere license. Additionally, the integrated vCenter Converter supports cold-cloning using a boot CD, and it can use a scheduler for centrally managing recurring conversions. In this review I looked at the stand-alone vCenter Converter. You can find a detailed comparison of the stand-alone and integrated vCenter Converter products at VMware's web page.
VMware Converter can convert physical computers running 64-bit versions of Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Server 2008, and 32-bit versions of Windows NT Service Pack 4 (SP4) and later, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, and Linux (RHEL, SUSE, and Ubuntu). It also supports conversions from most of the popular VM formats, including all VMware VMs, Microsoft Virtual PC, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005, Microsoft Hyper-V VMs (imported as a physical source), and Parallels Desktop. Additionally, Converter supports the following backup image formats: Symantec Backup Exec, Norton Ghost, Acronis True Image, and StorageCraft. However, one important limitation with VMware Converter is that it supports only VMware VMs as a destination. The VMs created by VMware Converter can be used by VMware Workstation, VMware Player, VMware ESX/ESXi, VMware Server, and VMware Fusion.
Installation of VMware Converter was fast and easy. During the installation, you can choose between installing Converter on the local system or in a client/server configuration. The local installation option runs all conversions on the local machine. The client/server option lets you run conversions from a remote system while you manage them from a local client system. I installed vCenter Converter by using the client/server configuration. This involved running setup on a central server to install the server components, and then running the installation on a network client to install the management console. I had to manually open port 443 to connect the server and the client. The stand-alone vCenter Converter supports both local and remote migrations if it’s installed in a client/server configuration. It also supports hot-cloning of multiple simultaneous conversions.
The built-in Conversion Wizard made it easy to create migration jobs. The wizard steps you through the process of specifying the source machine. Then it automatically deploys the conversion agent to the remote machine and prompts you for the name of the target ESX server. Unlike PlateSpin, which lets you choose different output targets, vCenter Converter is limited to outputting files onto a target ESX server. Next, the wizard lets you customize the VM that is created on the target. However, it doesn’t let you change guest OS properties such as the OS name. After you complete the steps in the wizard, migration begins automatically. You can see VMware’s vCenter Converter in Figure 1.
Migrations can take some time, depending on the size of the system you are converting, the network speed, and the speed of the storage subsystem. In these tests on my 1-gigabyte (GB) network, a Windows system with a 300-GB hard drive took about five hours to convert. At the end of the process, the Windows systems booted right up with no problems, and the Windows OS automatically recognized the new virtual device drivers. However, in keeping with the hardware changes, the system did require reactivation. I had no problems with any of the test migrations I performed using VMware vCenter Converter.
Once a stand-alone company, PlateSpin was purchased by Novell in 2008. Novell now offers a number of PlateSpin products, including PlateSpin Recon, PlateSpin Protect, PlateSpin Forge, and PlateSpin Migrate (the P2V converter utility). PlateSpin Migrate is a more comprehensive product than VMware Converter, but it’s also more complex. While VMware Converter is really oriented toward converting physical and virtual systems into VMware VMs, PlateSpin Migrate is marketed as virtualization platform-agnostic, and it converts physical systems to multiple virtualization formats (P2V). It also can convert VMs between multiple virtualization formats (V2V). Or it can go the other way and convert virtual machines to physical machines (V2P). PlateSpin Migrate is also able to capture and deploy server images. You can perform multiple migrations manually or you can schedule them. PlateSpin Migrate is also adept at keeping servers in sync for disaster recovery scenarios.
PlateSpin Migrate supports the following server operating systems: Windows Server 2008 (32 and 64-bit), Windows Server 2003 (32 and 64-bit), Windows 2000, Windows NT 4, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (32 and 64-bit), Red Hat Linux (32 and 64-bit), and Sun Solaris. Additionally, you can use PlateSpin Migrate to convert the following desktop operating systems: Windows Vista (32 and 64-bit), Windows XP Professional, and Windows 2000. PlateSpin Migrate supports most of today’s virtualization platforms as both source and target conversions. It also supports VMware ESX/ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix XenServer, SUSE Linux Enterprise with Xen, and Solaris Containers. Finally, PlateSpin Migrate supports the following image formats: Acronis TrueImage, PlateSpin Flexible Image Packages, Symantec Ghost, Symantec LiveState, Symantec Backup Exec, CommVault, and Tivoli Storage Manager.
Unlike VMware vCenter Converter, PlateSpin Migrate requires a multi-server installation. On the backend, the product uses Internet Information Services (IIS) and a SQL Server 2005 database. It can use an existing SQL Server 2005 instance, or it can install an instance of SQL Server 2005 Express. As its name suggests, PlateSpin Migrate Server’s task is to perform the migrations. You manage PlateSpin Migrate Server by using PlateSpin Migrate Client. I found the installation process for PlateSpin Migrate Server to be very difficult. First, the launcher always required that I expand its files before it presented the installation screen, thereby introducing an annoying delay into the setup experience. Next, the server itself had numerous dependencies. For example, it required 32-bit IIS, which wasn’t mentioned in the requirements. Not only that, but the PlateSpin Knowledge Base (KB) instructions about enabling 32-bit IIS didn’t work on my 64-bit Windows Server 2008 system. Therefore, I had to drop back and perform the installation on an actual 32-bit system. Not a very desirable option.
It took the better part of a day running and rerunning the setup program to load and install all the prerequisites such as IIS and the .NET Framework. The installer prompted me only when something that was needed wasn’t present. Moreover, the product required multiple activations. This was most certainly one of the worst install experiences I have ever had. For a product with this many prerequisites, I suggest they look at the way Microsoft handles this situation for SQL Server 2008, where a screen in the installation process checks for all dependencies and then reports on whether the system meets these dependencies (and if not, gives you a heads-up on what you need to do to make the system ready).
That said, PlateSpin Migrate did not require agents to be installed on the source or target servers. Additionally, the user’s guide was complete and helpful and was definitely a requirement for working with the product. To start, I had to register servers by supplying the DNS name or the IP address and authentication information. The servers were then registered in the client, as you can see in Figure 2.
PlateSpin Migrate functioned well for Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 and for VMware’s ESX Server as both source and target. To get started, I needed to use the Discover Details options to catalog the systems I wanted to migrate. While it required no agent, I found the Discover Details process unreliable. It often reported network or authentication errors where there were no real problems. After discovery, you use the Conversion Wizard to define the migration tasks that you want to perform. The Conversion Wizard provides a great deal of control over the entire migration process. It walks you through steps such as providing credentials to access the source and target servers, selecting file or block transfers, performing live or offline migrations, providing a new host name, changing the networking configuration, and accessing the target’s storage and services. For even more explicit control, an advanced Peer-to-Peer conversion option enables access to all migration options. I had no trouble running P2V migrations with VMware as the target, and the PlateSpin conversion ran smoothly, performing fully live migrations with no interruption in the source system’s services. PlateSpin Migrate converted a 20-GB server to a VM in about an hour and half. A new VM was created and started on the target platform without any problems.
While P2V worked great with VMware ESX Server as the target, I had trouble running V2V because PlateSpin Client wouldn’t work with Hyper-V virtual machines in its Copy or Move Workloads dialog boxes. I also found PlateSpin Migrate to have limited Hyper-V support as a target. Hyper-V VMs weren’t shown in the PlateSpin management console per virtualization host the way they were for Virtual Server 2005 or ESX Server. Additionally, while Hyper-V was supported as a target migration platform by PlateSpin Migrate, I had to perform numerous manual steps, such as creating the VM and supplying an ISO image for booting, before performing migrations.
PlateSpin was clearly the most feature-rich product in this review. However, it was also by far the most difficult to set up, and its implementation was stronger for VMware than for Hyper-V. I wouldn’t recommend this product for Hyper-V migrations, but it performed well in P2V migrations to VMware’s ESX Server.
Vizioncore was formerly another stand-alone company that specialized in VMware-oriented virtualization products. Vizioncore was acquired by Quest in early 2008 and has been evolving into a product that features stronger Microsoft virtualization support. Quest vConverter can work with Windows 2000 Server, Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, Windows XP Professional, and Windows Vista Ultimate as source systems. It can target both Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware’s ESX Server hypervisors.
Quest vConverter is a simpler product to install than either VMware Converter or PlateSpin Migrate. There is no multi-server option. Instead you install vConverter on the system on which you intend to run the conversions. vConverter can run on Windows XP Professional, Windows Vista Ultimate, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Server 2008 systems. The installation is a simple process, and there are no requirements for other auxiliary server products. vConverter uses Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM), and it requires you to open port 135 if there is a firewall between the vConverter system and the source systems.
Quest vConverter tries to perform almost all of its management functions by using a single window, and this approach was not completely successful for me. You can see the vConverter management console in Figure 3.
I found vConverter’s user interface to be clumsy and somewhat unprofessional-looking in comparison to VMware Converter’s and PlateSpin Migrate’s. The icons look dated and the screen’s panes act like they should resize, but they don’t. The Task List, in particular, was way too small. In spite of its name, the included Network Browser was not able to detect networked virtualization hosts or client systems when I tried it, but it did provide an option for importing system names from a .csv file. To get started, I manually entered the names of my Hyper-V and ESX servers.
You can perform P2V, V2V, and V2P migrations by running the Conversion Wizard. The Conversion Wizard was easy to use, but it didn’t offer anywhere near the number of options and customizations provided by PlateSpin Migrate. The wizard first prompts you to choose between a P2V or V2P migration. The P2V option can be used for both P2V and V2V migrations. Next, you select the source and target servers and provide the required authentication information. You also select the server’s target folder, and you can opt to change the VM’s name. However, you cannot set any of the detailed system properties such as the system’s name or storage configuration as you can in PlateSpin Migrate. However, you can adjust the VM’s properties, including the networking configuration. Additionally, a Live Log tab lets you track the progress of your migration tasks.
I successfully used vConverter for both P2V and V2V migrations, with both ESX Server and Hyper-V as the target. All the conversions that used ESX Server as the target worked fine. However, some of the Hyper-V conversions of Windows Vista systems triggered blue-screen errors when the VM was started. All my conversions of Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2003 systems worked fine.
vConverter supports more than one-time migrations. Like PlateSpin Migrate, it also offers a VM synchronization capability, which is called Continuous Protection mode. In Continuous Protection mode, the target VM can synchronize changes with the physical system. Continuous Protection mode sends the changes only from the physical system to the target VM.
Something Old and Something New
These P2V tools take something old -- your physical systems -- and turn them into something new: virtual machines. These tools are very useful for helping you consolidate your server infrastructure. Be prepared for the migration process to take several hours, depending on your infrastructure and the size of the servers that are being converted. Even so, the process is faster than building a new server from the ground up and then restoring the local data. And all the tools let you completely automate the conversions, so you can set them up and walk away. Although some experts suggest that these types of P2V and V2V products are suitable for backup and disaster recovery uses, my experiences indicate that the technology is good enough for mass migrations but not reliable enough to bet your business on it in disaster recovery scenarios.
Of the three products reviewed here, Quest’s vConverter was my clear pick for editor’s choice. It was the only product that worked well for both VMware ESX Server and Hyper-V. VMware’s Converter was the easiest to use, but its VMware-only orientation made it far more limited than the other products. PlateSpin Migrate had the most powerful migration customization capabilities and control, but its arduous setup process, unreliable interface, and poor Hyper-V support made it less useful than Quest’s simpler vConverter, which offers better support for Hyper-V. If you have a number of migrations to perform, these products can certainly help. However, this is definitely a technology area that needs more time to mature.
VMware vCenter Converter
Product: VMware vCenter Converter
Price: Part of vSphere / Stand-alone version is free; support is $90 per incident
Pros: Very easy to use
Cons: No support for Hyper-V or other non-VMware targets
Recommendation: Good for VMware only conversion with a minimum of customization
Rating: 2.5 stars
Novell PlateSpin Migrate
Product: Novell PlateSpin Migrate
Price: $295 per workload
Pros: Converts to and from all popular virtualization formats
Cons: Poor support for Hyper-V
Recommendation: Good for VMware conversions that require significant customization. Not recommended for Hyper-V.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Product: Quest vConverter
Price: $299 per server
Pros: Very easy to install, performs P2V and V2P, supports both ESX Server and Hyper-V
Cons: VMware-only targets
Recommendation: Good all-around choice for mixed P2V and V2V VMware and Hyper-V migrations
Rating: 3.5 stars