Servers

Vendors Scramble to Rein in Virtual Environments

The rush to virtualize data-center resources has players across the entire IT landscape working to deliver virtualization products and win customer favor. Management and automation vendors see the technology as an opportunity to improve current tools and create news ones designed to help enterprise IT shops optimize their virtual environments.

"Many companies have implemented virtualization projects to save money -- they didn't realize that this entire craze for virtualization would be potentially problematic when changes need to be made to the production environment," says Evelyn Hubbert, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Additionally, many organizations have thought of virtualization in one IT area, for instance server, client or network. Virtualization is forcing the silos or domains in IT to connect."

Heightening interest is Microsoft's formal launch of its Hyper-V hypervisor, planned for next week, and hypervisor market leader VMware's annual VMworld 2008 conference beginning in two weeks. A slew of companies, including HP and Red Hat, are breaking news that in one way or another promises to pump up the market for virtualization technologies.

HP added virtualization products across its software, server, thin client and storage divisions, for instance, and Red Hat acquired desktop virtualization player Qumranaet for $107 million.

Industry watchers say to expect more product enhancements as enterprise IT executives adopt x86 server virtualization and expand the technology into areas such as storage, applications and desktops.

"A healthy market for tools that manage, configure and secure VMs is a good sign and reflects the progressive attitude enterprises have about the technology: Virtualization is ready for prime time," says Phil Hochmuth, senior analyst at Yankee Group.

That means more companies will be looking to management and automation tools to help them gain control of their virtual environment and automate tasks as current practices become unsustainable. For instance, the methods used to manage configuration or patch distribution to 10 physical boxes will become untenable when those host servers house exponentially more virtual machines. But industry watchers that warn third-party tools to support virtual environment may not yet be ready.

"There is still much work to do to bring the management of virtual server environments up to par with that of a traditional physical environment," says Cameron Haight, research vice president at Gartner. "Areas where tools are still evolving range across the spectrum, but particularly important will be continuing work in areas such as root-cause analysis, capacity and performance planning, chargeback and automation."

Must-Have Capabilites Begin to Surface

A handful of management vendors recently updated their portfolios to address what industry watchers have pegged as must-have capabilities for enterprise IT managers responsible for virtual resources.

HP, via its technology partnership with VMware, updated several management and monitoring software applications to be able to not only identify virtual machines but also inventory the operating systems and applications running on them for compliance or chargeback capabilities. For instance, the HP Asset Manager with Discovery and Dependency Mapping product automatically discovers virtual environments, measures the usage of virtual-machine-installed software and tracks license compliance, the company says. HP SiteScope can automatically determine how to monitor performance and availability, via agent-based or agent-less technologies. Considering IT managers may not be able to install an agent on some virtual instances, the company says it's critical to be able to gather data without using agents.

In addition, HP's updates enable one tool to manage both physical and virtual servers, a feature that should be considered mandatory by enterprise IT managers.

"It is critical to manage virtualization in the same way the physical environment is managed. It should not be separate from other management efforts because that lack of coordination will cause all sorts of problems when troubleshooting, planning for capacity or provisioning resources," says Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

HP competitor BMC also announced upgrades across its product suite. In particular, BMC updated its Performance Management software with enhanced support for VMware's Virtual Infrastructure 3 and VMotion as well as the capability to monitor the virtual infrastructure, guest virtual machines and applications. The management software maker also tapped its RealOps acquisition to provide run-book automation capabilities specific to VMware environments. Most important, industry watchers say, is that BMC equipped its software to be able to relate virtual elements and resources to the overall business service to help IT understand how performance problems within that environment will impact critical customer or user-facing applications.

"BMC is offering performance management, monitoring of availability and changes, and tying that into their [business service management] portfolio -- what is critical for the business and what infrastructure is attached to this critical business service, virtual or physical," Forrester's Hubbert says.

Meanwhile, the management heavyweights face competition from virtual systems management start-ups such as Embotics, Fortisphere and VKernel, all of which have made product enhancements to showcase at VMworld. For their part, Embotics and VKernel separately made available free downloadable versions of their software offerings to help IT managers get started with the technology and inspire them to invest in enterprise versions.

Embotics' V-Scout application connects to VMware VirtualCenter to track virtual machines across VMware environments. The software then automatically populates itself with custom data in VirtualCenter and generates reports on numerous metrics such as disk space used, CPU count and connection state. VKernel's SearchMyVM download provides a "Google-like" interface to search more than 75 attributes across virtual machines, hosts, clusters, storage, resource pools, files, snapshots, VMware tools, applications and configuration information.

Fortisphere released the second generation of its Virtual Essentials suite, which the vendor says enhances its policy-based management applications to help IT managers better understand how virtual resources are being used and maximize their investment. The software allows IT managers to set policies that would enable virtual resources to be decommissioned or reclaimed at a set time, preventing IT from deploying more resources when existing virtual machines are being under-utilized. Virtual Essentials 2.0 includes capacity planning capabilities, according to Fortisphere CTO and principal founder John Suit, which "let IT managers grow their virtual environments without doing it wastefully."

Industry watchers say enterprise IT executives are reaching the point where capacity planning will be a critical discipline to master in the virtual realm.

"The growing density of VMs and the increasing virtualization of mission-critical applications is causing many IT organizations to look anew at ways to do better resource planning," Gartner's Haight says. "There has been a general perception that platforms such as VMware can help alleviate potential performance problems so there has been less rigorous attention paid to traditional planning, but the environment is changing."

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