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Review: XenServer 6.5 SP1 Training CXS-300

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to participate in the first new XenServer class to be rolled out in over three years, namely CXS-300: Citrix XenServer 6.5 SP1 Administration. Those of you with good memories may recall that XenServer 6.0, on which the previous course was based, was officially released on September 30, 2011. Being an invited guest in what was to be only the third time the class had been ever held was something that just couldn’t be passed up, so I hastily agreed. After all, the evolution of the product since 6.0 has been enormous. Plus, I have been a huge fan of XenServer since first working with version 5.0 back in 2008.  Shortly before the open-sourcing of XenServer in 2013, I still recall the warnings of brash naysayers that XenServer was all but dead. However, things took a very different turn in the summer of 2013 with the open-source release and subsequent major efforts to improve and augment product features. While certain elements were pulled and restored and there was a bit of confusion about changes in the licensing models, things have stabilized and all told, the power and versatility of XenServer with the 6.5 SP1 release is at a level now some thought it would never reach.

FROM 6.0 TO 6.5 – AND BEYOND

XenServer (XS for short) 6.5 SP1 made its debut on May 12, 2015. The feature set and changes are – as always – incorporated within the release notes. There are a number of changes of note that include an improved hotfix application mechanism, a whole new XenCenter layout (since 6.5), increased VM density, more guest OS support, a 64-bit kernel, the return of workload balancing (WLB) and the distributed virtual switch controller (DVSC) appliance, in-memory read caching, and many others. Significant improvements have been made to storage and network I/O performance and overall efficiency. XS 6.5 was also a release that benefited significantly from community participation in the Creedence project and the SP1 update builds upon this.

One notable point is that XenServer has been found to now host more XenDesktop/XenApp (XD/XA) instances than any other hypervisor (see this reference). And, indeed, when XenServer 6.0 was released, a lot of the associated training and testing on it was in conjunction with Provisioning Services (PVS). Some users, however, discovered XenServer long before this as a perfectly viable hypervisor capable of hosting a variety of Linux and Windows virtual machines, without having even given thought to XenDesktop or XenApp hosting. For those who first became familiar with XS in that context, the added course material covering provisioning services had in reality relatively little to do with XenServer functionality as an entity. Some viewed PVS an overly emphasized component of the course and exam. In this new course, I am pleased to say that XS’s original roots as a versatile hypervisor is where the emphasis now lies. XD/XA is of course discussed, but the many features available that are fundamental to XS itself is what the course focuses on, and it does that well.

COURSE MATERIALS: WHAT’S INCLUDED

The new “mission” of the course from my perspective is to focus on the core product itself and not only understand its concepts, but to be able to walk away with practical working knowledge. Citrix puts it that the course should be “engaging and immersive”. To that effect, the instructor-led course CXS-300 can be taken in a physical classroom or via remote GoToMeeting (I did the latter) and incorporates a lecture presentation, a parallel eCourseware manual plus a student exercise workbook (lab guide) and access to a personal live lab during the entire course. The eCourseware manual serves multiple purposes, providing the means to follow along with the instructor and later enabling an independent review of the presented material. It adds a very nice feature of providing an in-line notepad for each individual topic (hence, there are often many of these on a page) and these can be used for note taking and can be saved and later edited. In fact, a great takeaway of this training is that you are given permanent access to your personalized eCourseware manual, including all your notes.

The course itself is well organized; there are so many components to XenServer that five days works out in my opinion to be about right – partly because often question and answer sessions with the instructor will take up more time than one might guess, and also, in some cases all participants may have already some familiarity with XS or other hypervisor that makes it possible to go into some added depth in some areas. There will always need to be some flexibility depending on the level of students in any particular class.

A very strong point of the course is the set of diagrams and illustrations that are incorporated, some of which are animated. These compliment the written material very well and the visual reinforcement of the subject matter is very beneficial. Below is an example, illustrating a high availability (HA) scenario:

XS6.5SP1_course_image.jpg 

 

The course itself is divided into a number of chapters that cover the whole range of features of XS, enforced by some in-line Q&A examples in the eCourseware manual and with related lab exercises.  Included as part of the course are not only important standard components, such as HA and Xenmotion, but some that require plugins or advanced licenses, such as workload balancing (WLB), the distributed virtual switch controller (DVSC) appliance and in-memory read caching. The immediate hands-on lab exercises in each chapter with the just-discussed topics are a very strong point of the course and the majority of exercises are really well designed to allow putting the material directly to practical use. For those who have already some familiarity with XS and are able to complete the assignments quickly, the lab environment itself offers a great sandbox in which to experiment. Most components can readily be re-created if need be, so one can afford to be somewhat adventurous.

The lab, while relying heavily on the XenCenter GUI for most of the operations, does make a fair amount of use of the command line interface (CLI) for some operations. This is a very good thing for several reasons. First off, one may not always have access to XenCenter and knowing some essential commands is definitely a good thing in such an event. The CLI is also necessary in a few cases where there is no equivalent available in XenCenter. Some CLI commands offer some added parameters or advanced functionality that may again not be available in the management GUI. Furthermore, many operations can benefit from being scripted and this introduction to the CLI is a good starting point. For Windows aficionados, there are even some PowerShell exercises to whet their appetites, plus connecting to an Active Directory server to provide role-based access control (RBAC) is covered.

THE INSTRUCTOR

So far, the materials and content have been the primary points of discussion. However, what truly can make or break a class is the instructor. The class happened to be quite small, and primarily with individuals attending remotely. Attendees were in fact from four different countries in different time zones, making it a very early start for some and very late in the day for others. Roughly half of those participating in the class were not native English speakers, though all had admirable skills in both English and some form of hypervisor administration.  Being all able to keep up a common general pace allowed the class to flow exceptionally well. I was impressed with the overall abilities and astuteness of each and every participant.

The instructor, Jesse Wilson, was first class in many ways. First off, knowing the material and being able to present it well are primary prerequisites. But above and beyond that was his ability to field questions related to the topic at hand and even to go off onto relevant tangential material and be able to juggle all of that and still make sure the class stayed on schedule. Both keeping the flow going and also entertaining enough to hold students’ attention are key to holding a successful class. When elements of a topic became more of a debatable issue, he was quick to not only tackle the material in discussion, but to try this out right away in the lab environment to resolve it. The same pertained to demonstrating some themes that could benefit from a live demo as opposed to explaining them just verbally. Another strong point was his adding his own drawings to material to further clarify certain illustrations, where additional examples and explanations were helpful.

SUMMARY

All told, I found the course well structured, very relevant to the product and the working materials to be top notch. The course is attuned to the core product itself and all of its features, so all variations of the product editions are covered.

Positive points:

  • Good breadth of material
  • High-quality eCourseware materials
  • Well-presented illustrations and examples in the class material
  • Q&A incorporated into the eCourseware book
  • Ability to save course notes and permanent access to them
  • Relevant lab exercises matching the presented material
  • Real-life troubleshooting (nothing ever runs perfectly!)
  • Excellent instructor

Desiderata:

  • More “bonus” lab materials for those who want to dive deeper into topics
  • More time spent on networking and storage
  • A more responsive lab environment (which was slow at times)
  • More coverage of more complex storage Xenmotion cases in the lecture and lab

In short, this is a class that fulfills the needs of anyone from just learning about XenServer to even experienced administrators who want to dive more deeply into some of the additional features and differences that have been introduced in this latest XS 6.5 SP1 release. CXS-300: Citrix XenServer 6.5 SP1 Administration represents a makeover in every sense of the word, and I would say the end result is truly admirable.

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About XenServer

XenServer is the leading open source virtualization platform, powered by the Xen Project hypervisor and the XAPI toolstack. It is used in the world's largest clouds and enterprises.
 
Commercial support for XenServer is available from Citrix.