As an IT professional, you’re faced with endless projects and administrative tasks. Provisioning test virtual machines (VMs) is a common need. What if you could offload some of the test servers to a cloud-based provider and unleash developers to spin up new VMs at will? Or what if you need to do extensive testing and you have high resource demands or you need isolated test machines? These are some of the many use cases for VMware’s vCloud Express, a cloud-based virtualization solution offered by both Virtacore Systems and Terremark.

I purchased vCloud Express from Virtacore’s website. I used the web-based portal to enter my credit card and other basic demographic information to order the software. After less than 24 hours, my account was approved and logon information was emailed to me.

After I logged on, I clicked the oversized Create a New Server button, which launched a wizard to create a VM. Two public cloud locations exist: Virginia (the default for new servers) and California; these locations are represented by separate tabs in the easy-to-navigate web console, which Figure 1 shows. Options in the wizard include the vApp group (server group), server name and description, and which OS template to use. OS choices are various builds of CentOS, Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Windows. For my testing, I focused on Windows, which is available in 32-bit Windows Server 2008 R2 (which is natively 64-bit) or Windows Server 2008. Unfortunately, no license options exist for workstation client installations or older server versions, such as Windows Server 2003—which limits some testing.

Figure 1: vCloud Express web console
Figure 1: vCloud Express web console

After you select the OS, the next choice is the size of the VM, which defines the memory/disk/CPU combination. All machines have two to eight virtual CPUs and memory ranges from 1GB to 16GB; disk space is fixed at 5GB. After I ran through the wizard, a VM was created in a matter of minutes.

I powered on the new VM, then I used the supplied username and password combination to log on. However, I couldn’t access the Internet. I checked the rudimentary firewall in the Virtacore web console, but no firewall rules existed to filter traffic. I contacted Virtacore and a support engineer quickly resolved the problem.

To access the servers the first time on any Windows machine, click the Console button for any server. You’re then prompted to download the VMware Remote Console Plug-in, a 21MB download that’s used for connecting to VMs. For the console to install, Internet Explorer (IE) cannot be running.

After I installed the plug-in and clicked Console to launch the VM I wanted, the system launched the VMware Remote Console. I was impressed with the console—especially the mouse scrolling and keyboard operations; there was absolutely no mouse, screen, or keyboard latency in my testing. The robust performance made me feel like I was using an RDP connection to the server.

Performance inside the VM was excellent. I ran DCPROMO to create a domain in just a few minutes. However, the speed to create or power up VMs varied dramatically. For example, powering up a VM took more than 10 minutes one day but only a few minutes the next day. I found that I had plenty of processor capacity on my VMs. The default 50GB of disk space for a Windows machine is adequate for initial provisioning, but it wasn’t clear how to add storage space. Antivirus protection isn’t included, so I installed ClamWin’s open-source antivirus protection, which worked well for testing purposes.

The interface did have some quirks. For example, I changed the administrator password on a machine, but the software didn’t update the Virtacore web console that displays the administrator password. Also, there was no way to block the display of the old password, which was confusing.

Cloning server groups or copying a server group is a handy way to template a group of VMs for rapid deployment or simply to save a group of VMs. A cold-copy function exists for each VM. However, snapshotting isn’t supported.

Although vCloud Express is new and has a few configuration kinks, it delivers a fast VM connection, a speedy Internet connection, and a representative choice of prebuilt VMs. This product is a solid option for IT professionals looking for creative ways to meet the high demands of development staff, or those who need access to test VMs.

vCloud Express
PROS: Easy setup; quick deployment; wide range of OS choices
CONS: Uneven performance; no support for Windows Server 2003
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
PRICE: Pay as you go, credit card only; price ranges from $.09 to $1.12 per hour for licensed Windows-based servers, depending on memory and processor configuration
RECOMMENDATION: For time- or resource-strapped admins who lack a test environment or Windows licenses, or who need a completely segregated test environment, vCloud Express might be a good solution. It offers a rapid path to a development/test environment and is easily managed by IT or non-IT staff.
CONTACT: Virtacore Systems • 888-573-7837 • www.virtacore.com