Guide to Server Management
Burning questions lead to best practices for virtual server management
Tips on tying physical and virtual server management together
By Denise Dubie
The hottest thing in server management these days is taming the virtual server beast.
Server virtualization makes it possible to run multiple applications and operating systems on fewer hardware resources, which appeals to many IT managers looking to improve utilization. According to a recent Forrester Research poll, respondents have virtualized about one-quarter of their servers and plan to have close to 50% virtualized in two years. As enterprise IT teams look to broaden their server virtualization deployments, it's important to get in front of the management challenges.
For those who are struggling with how to manage virtual machines, here are answers to six important questions.
1. What's so tough about managing virtual servers?
Some will tell you that managing virtual machines varies little from managing physical servers, and others will say it depends on what you're managing. But all agree you need to have a comprehensive management plan in place before widely deploying virtualization in production environments.
"Management is not a single discipline. It can range from business continuity planning to patch management," says Andi Mann, a research director at Enterprise Management Associates. In the case of business continuity planning, virtual servers could be considered easier to manage than physical servers, Mann explains, but when it comes to patching multiple systems, the virtual world introduces complexities. "You can't always be certain if all virtual systems are patched, and obviously that's a problem," Mann says.
Consistency and standardization also become a bigger issue when managing virtual servers alongside physical machines. The perks of virtualization include easy-to-deploy resources, and that demands IT managers have predefined configuration parameters for application and database servers, for instance. Experts say keeping configurations accurate and up-to-date becomes more critical in the virtual environment because configuration drift is more apt to happen on virtual machines. The same goes for patching.
"The focus shifts to managing templates and preventing drift," says Jasmine Noel, principal analyst with Ptak, Noel and Associates. IT managers would ideally create a standard template that details the operating system, vendor software, patch levels, custom code and more. The template would be maintained so that every new virtual server deployed remained consistent with the predefined standard. Patching would also become part of the template, Noel says.
Beyond maintenance and availability management, another key management issue is performance. The complexity of a virtual environment makes determining the root cause of performance issues a more daunting task, industry watchers say.
"Performance management becomes trickier because for the more difficult problems you'll need to understand how physical server issues manifest in the [virtual machines] and vice versa," Noel says.
While virtualization provides flexible resources, multiple virtual machines residing on one box compete for the same resources, and IT managers need to keep that in mind.
2. How do I curb virtual server sprawl?
Virtualization offers ease of deployment, which can become a bit of a Catch-22 scenario for IT managers. The faster servers can be provisioned, the more it seems they are in demand - and that quickly leads to too many virtual machines.
IT managers and industry watchers say controlling virtual server sprawl requires the same processes and auditing that would be used in physical server deployments to ensure only as many machines as needed get provisioned.
"We have it set up so that no one has the rights to add virtual servers without requesting them through IT," says Marc Kraus, manager of IT infrastructure at Merkle in Lanham, Md. "We run weekly scans as well to keep that in check."
While policy-based management and inventory tools can help IT stay on top of the number of servers, IT has to be disciplined about putting processes in place to prevent virtual sprawl from corrupting the success of a deployment.
"People know we are able to bring up a new virtual server and turn that around quickly so the requests have increased. We basically have had to push back a bit against server creep," says Albert Ganzon, director of network services and engineering at international law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in San Francisco.
Industry watchers suggest adopting a server life-cycle management process in which a virtual or physical server's purpose and status from creation to retirement is tracked. Failure to curb lax deployment habits can exacerbate other challenges around managing virtual machines, such as patch management.
3. Are traditional management tools good enough for virtual servers?
Management vendors would answer, "Yes!" and for the most part, they have stepped up their support for virtual environments.
From systems management market leaders such as CA to data center management players such as BladeLogic, vendors have partnered with or built APIs into VMware's tools to enable the exchange of data and provide some metrics around the health and availability of virtual servers. Several vendors promise to provide virtual and physical management metrics such as CPU, disk and memory usage side by side, but IT managers need more than the basic information provided with some tools.
"Yes, my existing management tools work just as well with virtual servers as any other server. The difference, however, is you don't have the advantage of seeing the whole machine and manipulating that in the same tools you do the [virtual machines]," says Cars.com's Christensen. "Visual representations of environments and good dashboards are key in managing a virtual environment."
Start-ups such as PlateSpin, Scalent Systems, Veeam, Vizioncore and several others have emerged to fill the virtual management gap they say incumbent vendors can't address. For instance, some of the areas that start-ups focus on are identifying applications running on the virtual machines and gaining visibility into the requests and responses in the virtual stack. Innovative virtual server management tools can help IT managers more quickly identify which application on which virtual machines is performing poorly.
For IT managers who aren't ready to invest in specialized software for virtual management, there are things they can do to make their tried-and-true techniques better suited to a virtual environment.
For instance, Ganzon increased his investment in Network General products to monitor traffic to and from virtual servers. He coupled the traffic analysis from Network General (recently acquired by NetScout) with physical server performance metrics from Compuware's ServerVantage software.
4. Can tools that come bundled with virtualization hypervisors do the job?
The consensus is that the management tools that come bundled with VMware or Xen hypervisors won't cut it in a large virtualization deployment.
While the software provided with, say, VMware's hypervisor enables management of the hypervisor and that environment, industry watchers say the capabilities don't go much beyond availability to cover performance or other vendors' products.
Additionally, most networks have more than one type of hypervisor running, so there is a demand for a heterogeneous approach to virtual server management.
Plus the technology available today from virtualization vendors won't work as well when IT managers look to scale their virtualization deployments from dozens to hundreds of servers. While virtualization vendors are expected to differentiate themselves with management capabilities in the future, today's tools aren't up to snuff for large multivendor, multisite networks. Of course, that timeline doesn't mean IT managers getting started with virtualization can't put the tools to use.
5. Should I wait for Microsoft to deliver its virtualization hypervisor?
Whatever your opinion of Microsoft, you can't deny the company knows how to generate excitement over products. The operating system vendor's much-anticipated Windows Server Virtualization hypervisor technology, code-named Viridian, isn't expected to be released until 2008 at the earliest - which has some wondering if they should hold off their virtualization investment until then.
"Microsoft may want you to wait, but why wait? Whatever Microsoft does will be Microsoft-specific," Yankee Group's Hamilton say. Others agree, saying that Microsoft's product could make or break decisions in smaller Windows-centric shops but not for large heterogeneous environments.
"I'm unconvinced it is worth the wait for most large enterprises with a specific server virtualization project that they want done now," Noel says.
But if you are a Microsoft shop, you should take into consideration the vendor's plans. Waiting might be a bit counterproductive, but planning a short-term tactical approach until Microsoft reveals its bigger plans makes sense. While users question if Microsoft will broaden its reach to manage hypervisors other than its own, industry watchers are positive the vendor will couple its virtualization play with more management technologies.
6. What are my freeware and open source options for managing virtual servers?
Companies such as Hyperic and Veeam have released products designed to manage virtual environments. Hyperic, which released its Hyperic HQ for VMware software last year, built capabilities to extend the company's flagship software into virtual environments. The vendor wrote integrations into VMware's APIs and Virtual Center interface to discover both physical and virtual servers and incorporate virtual instances into an inventory of all systems. If something changes, the software detects it, updates the repository and alerts IT. HQ performs what the company calls "physical to virtual mapping" that shows IT managers the virtual machines and their hosts, as well as operating systems and applications running within the virtual machines.
In Veeam's case, the start-up is building a commercial software business off of the success of its freeware application. FastSCP 2.0 for VMware is a freeware file-management product that helps customers move virtual machines and copy instances from one server to another. FastSCP was originally released in October 2006 and "became the de facto standard for ESX file management," says Veeam President and CEO Ratmir Timashev.
Other industry watchers shy away from advocating freeware or open source applications for full-blown virtual server management.
"The risk in using freeware or open source is really low if it fills a gap in existing management tools, but I'd be nervous about trying to extend the capabilities or scale the application to cover an enterprise-level deployment. You don't want to get too far down the path with the freeware or open source application and realize it will not meet all the needs," Yankee Group's Hamilton says.
Five key questions to ask vendors about their virtual server management tools
Ability to tracking VM versions, application dependencies and administrative roles present key product differentiators
By Tom Henderson
The snapshots of images (including virtual machine guest-operating-system states) must be tracked in terms of where they sit on the network, how they are being used, and their appropriate fix and patch status.
A popular use of virtual machine technology is wrapping guest operating systems (with applications) into ISO or other mountable images that subsequently can be deployed in arrays of servers as virtual guests.
It can be critically important to make sure the images contain dependency modules and patches and fixes, and are otherwise in revision synchronization with each other, as well as with corporate update policy.
2. How are moves, adds and changes administered?
Virtualization implies mobility for hosts, guest operating systems and the applications that run on them. Because virtual machines are built to house numerous guest operating systems per host, moves, adds and changes will occur to guest operating system or application instances.
Keeping track of these developments is necessary, as is tracking host or neighboring-guest resource use and performance.
Although each virtual-machine product vendor tracks performance and keeps statistics for location and performance control, heterogeneous guest hosts coupled to volatile guest operating systems and applications can present challenges to administrators auditing guests, applications and behavior.
3. How are virtual machine and application dependencies kept in check?
One of the benefits of a virtual machine environment is an agility that lets virtual-machine-supported applications be moved from one host hardware platform to another.
To facilitate this movement, IT administrators will need to understand application availability on moved instances and on the dependency synchronization that is required among related processes. An example of these dependencies might be world-facing Web hosts that need back-end database accessibility; move one, and DNS, routing and/or authentication settings may need to be changed.
4. How are user and administrative roles managed across virtual machines?
As virtual-machine guest operating systems and applications become abstracted from specific hardware environments, image identity and secure authentication become very important.
Administrative controls are needed from the point of building virtual machine components through to making configuration changes, tweaking tuning parameters and accessing the virtual machine infrastructure. Virtual machines can be moved readily from hosts to other virtualized hosts with ease.
To stop image theft, alteration- and system-configuration auditing controls come into play.
Most organizations use hierarchical management policies to provide varying degrees of administrative control over hardware, virtual machines, guest operating systems and the applications running on servers. These varied types of access must be managed and an audit system put in place to track all activity.
5. What forensics is available to help determine why a virtual machine went down?
Any time a virtual machine, guest operating system or virtual-machine-hosted application behaves badly, it becomes important for IT not only to know about the event but also to understand the forensic information about the conditions leading to the misbehavior.
Location, settings, guest-operating-system and application activity, and other characteristics may play an important part in providing a quality feedback loop for forensics and decision support, as well as for help-desk control and audit purposes.
Server management grows up
By Denise Dubie
Market leaders forced to evolve products to meet changing demand in today's virtual data centers
Server management software not too long ago was considered a mature -- and in some cases stagnant -- technology, but with x86 server virtualization on the rise, the market is set to transform.
"The [server management] market is fast evolving in two directions: agentless and automated solutions for the collection of performance data and failure analysis; and the management of the virtualized environment," says Jean-Pierre Garbani, a research director with Forrester Research who recently assessed the server management market in a report. "As virtualization gains ground in the data center, so will new management solutions. Virtualization will create problems that will need to be solved by an evolution of server management."
Server management today involves more than pinging a box for availability. Enterprise IT managers must be on top of the server's physical health, its power consumption, its real estate in the data center and the number of virtual tenants it is hosting at any given time. Server management requires IT managers to understand the state of the physical box as well as ensure the performance of applications, operating systems and virtual machines running on the box. And oftentimes systems administrators are required to do all this on multiple machines and from a distance.
"My existing management tools work just as well in virtual servers as any other. The difference, however, is you don't have the advantage of seeing the whole machine and manipulating that in the same tools you do the virtual machines," says Edward Christensen, director of technical operations at Cars.com in Chicago. The online automotive company uses VMware to virtualize servers on HP boxes in its development and quality-assurance environments. "I have to say managing virtual servers is more complex," he adds.
The server management market, estimated by Forrester Research to reach $404 million in 2007 (up 3% from 2006), will change in the next few years first to reflect the push toward virtualization. While most vendors have already released products designed to monitor VMware or Linux-based Xen virtual machines alongside physical servers, the feature sets will get more advanced as virtualization expands to larger deployments and moves more into production networks.
Industry watchers say existing management tools from market-leading vendors BMC, CA, HP and IBM can collect metrics and monitor availability on virtual servers today, but the vendors will have to increase capabilities to tackle performance management across multiple virtual and physical servers. And they will face competition from start-ups such as PlateSpin, Scalent Systems, Veeam and Vizioncore, which emerged in the past few years to target virtual server management.
"From a monitoring perspective, existing tools can collect and display management data from virtual machines – but the real trick is coming up with the intelligence to analyze all that data effectively," says Jasmine Noel, a principal analyst at Ptak, Noel and Associates. "Some start-ups may do that better because they focus all of their resources on virtualization."Expressing server management
A second evolution of the tools will incorporate the ease of use and lower price points IT managers are demanding. The big four vendors -- BMC, CA, HP and IBM – and others work to offer "express" versions of their products and break down huge product suites into easy-to-deploy applications, vendors such as ASG, Compuware, Heroix, Indicative, Microsoft, NetIQ and Quest Software will also be looking to take advantage of customer demand for lower-cost alternatives to the big four.
"One of the main issues behind server management has been the difficulty in deploying and configuring agents," Garbani says.
To start, vendors will be challenged to adopt updated product architectures that require less manual work to install the software. BMC, CA, HP and IBM are working to revamp their server management wares to take on virtual environments, as traditional methods of managing systems become too cumbersome in dynamic environments. For instance, many server management products in the past required IT managers to distribute agents to managed machines -- a laborious and time-consuming process.
Now vendors offer agentless software options that can monitor traffic and use industry-standard protocols such as ICMP, SNMP and SMASH to accomplish the same tasks. BMC, for one, already offers BMC Performance Manager software, which includes agentless technologies. Vendors should adopt tools that can determine when and where an agent is needed, automatically distribute the agent without systems administrator intervention and self-configure the agent to best manage the target machine, Forrester's Garbani says.
"For large vendors to maintain market shares, they must overcome typical obstacles to server management by removing clumsy and resource-hungry agents, providing self-configuration of critical thresholds, integrating with event management and service-level management dashboards for failure analysis, and automating the deployment of products," Forrester's Garbani concludes.
Management is key to happy, healthy servers
By Denise Dubie
Primer on server management
Server management technologies have traditionally been used to keep server hardware healthy and server software optimized to perform up to expectations.
The tools available today range from software that sits on the box measuring server response times to tools designed to remotely monitor CPU, disk, memory and network interface card resources. Server management typically requires technology that monitors system events and persistence performance parameters as well as operating system and hardware health. Technologies today also monitor the services and processes running on servers to give visibility into application resource consumption, for instance.
A server management platform typically also involves software installed on a dedicated server acting as the central management console and agent software residing on managed machines. Yet with the increasing popularity in J2EE and .Net platforms more vendors are also offering passive monitoring tools that don't require agents on the managed servers, but monitor traffic for requests and responses to and from the server. Additionally, remote control tools that allow IT managers to log on to servers from a distance help reduce the manual labor involved with manager servers and enable IT managers to distribute software and patches on a one-to-many basis.
With virtualization taking hold both in the data center and throughout the network, server management technologies are evolving to include managing configuration, availability and performance of virtual machines (multiple instances of an operating system running on the same physical server) to help IT managers better identify the root cause of problems on a host machine.
And with green IT initiatives under way, reducing the server footprint physically becomes a priority for IT managers who will also be looking to reduce power consumption across the entire data center. Server management vendors offer remote control features that enable IT managers to shut down unused machines and limit power consumption in data centers.