My initial experience with Antsle, a virtual machine appliance

I love virtual machines and containers because they make it easy to isolate the applications and dependencies I’m using for a particular project. Tools like Docker, Virtualbox, and vagrant are indispensable for most of my projects and I’m still using those, but in this post I’ll describe a product called Antsle which has given me additional flexibility and has freed up some local resources.

My daily developer workstation is a MacBook Pro with 16 GB of RAM and a 500 GB SSD. From a memory and CPU perspective, it can handle running a handful of virtual machines simultaneously without a problem. But disk space is starting to be an issue.

I use vagrant and Ansible to make virtual machine provisioning repeatable–I can delete any VM at any time without remorse because I can always recreate it easily. But I get tired of continually cleaning up machines and pruning back base boxes just to reclaim space.

I decided to do something about it. My options were:

  • When Apple releases a MacBook Pro that can take 32 GB of RAM, buy that with at least 1 TB SSD, then continue with my current toolset.
  • Buy a Mac Pro or some other desktop to use exclusively for virtual machines.
  • Buy or build an actual server and set it up with virtualization. Something like this, for example.
  • Use AWS for my development virtual machines.

Then I came across a little company based out of San Diego called Antsle. Antsle builds virtualization appliances. What makes their product attractive to me versus buying a workstation or server or building my own is that:

  • The machines have no fan or other moving parts–they are completely silent. The case acts as a heat sink.
  • The machines are energy-efficient. The docs say mine will run at 45 watts.
  • They are built on Linux with standard virtualization technology (LXC and KVM) plus some additional optimizations from Antsle.
  • They are ready-to-go out-of-the-box, saving me the time and effort of building my own solution.

I really like using AWS, and I think for production workloads, no one, not even your own internal IT data center, can do it cheaper or more securely. Plus the breadth of their service offering is nuts. But for my modest developer needs, I’m pretty sure I’ll break even within a year, and that’s not counting the productivity gain of not having to wait for instances to spin up or having to fool with the complexity of the AWS console.

So, after that analysis, I was ready to buy. The biggest struggle was to decide which model to buy and whether or not to do any upgrades. I went for an Ultra, which has an 8-core 2.4 GHz Intel processor, 32 GB of ECC RAM and two Samsung EVO 850 1 TB SSD drives. The drives are mirrored so that’s 1 TB of space. I could have expanded the RAM to 64 GB and increased the storage up to 16 TB, but it was hard to justify the added expense based on my needs.

My Antsle arrived last week and I’ve been pretty happy with it so far. I’ve got a set of “base” images created so that I can easily instantiate new machines based on typical components and configuration. For example, I have an image for every recent Alfresco release. When I need to work on one for a client project or to help someone in the forums, I can just clone one of my base images and start it up. I can let it run as long as I want without worrying about cost, and then kill it or keep it around as needed.

Here is a summary of my experience, thus far:

  • No setup necessary. I plugged it in, started it up, and was starting up machines in minutes.
  • Creating machines from templates, cloning machines, taking snapshots, and startup/shutdown happens very quickly.
  • Templates and instantiated machines take up less space than I would have thought, which is great. So far, I’m glad I stuck with the base storage option.
  • I haven’t pegged the CPU yet, but I have seen it spike briefly to as high as 50%, and that was when I was only running a single VM. I continue to see brief spikes here and there, but as I won’t have too many machines under load at any given time so I’m not that worried about it yet.
  • Documentation seems thorough and helpful. The company has been really responsive and helpful so far as well. They responded to a minor billing issue quickly and resolved it without a fuss.
  • I noticed when you clone a machine that has a bridged network adapter, the MAC address doesn’t change. You have to drop and re-add the NIC if you want a new MAC address, otherwise DHCP will assign it the same IP address as the original machine. This isn’t a big deal once you know the behavior.
  • I had to change the vm.max_mem_map setting to make Elasticsearch happy, which is a typical setup task for Elastic. It took me a minute to realize that needs to be done on the Antsle host and applies to all guests–it cannot be done on the individual VM, at least for LXC.
  • There does not appear to be a way to tag or comment on virtual machines. Additionally, the name you assign to each image is fixed-length and fairly short. So I’m somewhat concerned that, as my library grows, I’ll start to lose track of what’s installed on which machine. AntMan, the management console, seems to be evolving fairly rapidly so maybe this will change in a future release.

I’ve also created a few videos if you want to see it in action.

This video is the unboxing.

This video shows an Ubuntu and a CentOS image being created and then configured for bridged networking.

This video shows how image templates work and gives you a little bit of a feel for the performance using a real-world app (in this case, Alfresco running on CentOS) while other machines are running simultaneously (one Mail/LDAP machine and a four-node Elastic cluster).