System Center Virtual Machine Manager

On Tuesday, Microsoft released to manufacturing System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008. The final code will be shipped on Nov. 1. The company bills the software as one-stop organization, allowing administrators to set up and deploy new virtual machines and manage hosts and other virtual infrastructure elements from one console.

The 2008 version of SCVMM introduces a wide scope of virtual platform support, performance and resource optimization, and enhances support of high-availability host clusters, among other improvements. In testing RTM escrow code in my lab over the past month or so, I found SCVMM to be a competent and convenient place to manage virtual machines.

An Overview

You'll notice immediately upon launching SCVMM that the interface is familiar -- it sports the common three-pane approach to the System Center family of products. What's especially nice is that the integration between SCVMM and the rest of System Center isn't just skin-deep; the product plays nicely in particular with System Center Operations Manager and Configuration Manager. It even goes to the level of being able to manage workloads running on discrete operating systems within virtual machines on a VMware host.

SCVMM supports all Windows products -- back to Windows 98 SE -- and some Linux. Centralized virtual machine deployment and management are provided across a range of popular virtual hosting and systems management software, including the suite of Microsoft and VMware products -- Virtual Server, Hyper-V, VMware Server, VMware ESX and VMware GSX. Xen is a possible later addition.

Many of the features of the previous version of SCVMM continue to do their jobs. This includes intelligent placement, which analyzes a set of virtual machine hosts that you have identified and, based on the resource needs of the individual virtual machine you are working with, intelligently selects the VM host that best has the available resources to support your desired configuration. Another previous feature is superb physical-to-virtual (P2V) and virtual-to-virtual (V2V) conversions that make it very simple to reconfigure your infrastructure as you need.

Also of note: One of the most powerful building blocks for SCVMM is its reliance on PowerShell. Every UI function in the system is built on PowerShell commands and management of any virtual machine is fully scriptable using a very well-documented set of cmdlets for PowerShell. For instance, everything from creating a VM to performing a P2V or V2V conversion -- or even starting a VMware Vmotion Live Migration (more on that in a bit) -- can be done either from the GUI or from a PowerShell cmdlet. That is powerful.

Finally, SCVMM 2008 leverages some of the improvements made to Windows Server 2008 in the clustering department. As you may know, Windows Server 2008 has made clustering something even the least experienced of administrators can handle. SCVMM automates the addition of a host cluster to support Hyper-V-based virtual machines and automatically detects when nodes are added to and removed from that cluster. And the intelligent placement algorithm works with a cluster too: SCVMM won't create VMs so that the cluster becomes overcommitted.

Architecture and Interfaces

SCVMM was designed by Microsoft to be the premier front end for all of your virtual machine management needs, and in that sense, it supports managing VMs running on Microsoft's Hyper-V or Virtual Server 2005 R2, or VMware-hosted virtual machines as well. Indeed, among the smoothest features of SCVMM is its support for live-migrating a machine using VMware's Vmotion technology from one host to another.

Interestingly, SCVMM doesn't support live migration among Hyper-V servers because that feature is not yet available in Windows Server 2008. (Live migration is the no-downtime way to switch a virtual machine between compatible hosts.) But in the meantime, SCVMM can and does support VMware's version of this feature, called V-Motion. When Windows Server 2008 R2 ships, Microsoft's native live migration will be available and supported, and SCVMM will work seamlessly with it out of the box.

The architecture of SCVMM relies on a single server-side installation of the product and the various interfaces to it. The administrator console, previously mentioned, and the PowerShell integration sit atop the server product. Underneath the server product are the various system management interfaces to the individual virtual machine hosts, a SCVMM library server that allows you to store VM images, scripts to turn ISO images into readily available VMs, a pre-filled template for a virtual machine and other "quick-start" shortcuts. These virtual machines, templates and other elements can be stored on disks within the hosts, or you can leverage your existing SAN environment and its various data-transmission methods to move these artifacts around.

Easing the Administrative Burden

New to SCVMM 2008 is the integrated performance and resource optimization (PRO) feature. PRO allows you to set up -- either alone or with System Center Operations Manager -- alerts and policies that notify and govern certain performance scenarios. For example, if problems like disk space, processor usage or memory consumption degrade the health of a virtual machine, PRO can be configured to trigger an alert. (These alerts are extensible.) You can then instruct SCVMM to automatically act on an alert, if you wish, and perform remediating actions which shorten the time between problem and solution. These alerts can also be logged to be addressed later, in a manual fashion, by an administrator.

PRO is a neat feature that continues to ensure your virtual machine stable is performing in the best way possible and takes away some of the tedious parts of managing a set of virtual machines.

Also of note is the self-service portal available for users to create their own virtual machines that can then be managed by SCVMM. Administrators can set up a policy that allows users to create machines that require different numbers of "quota points" based on their hardware footprint or overall resource profile, and those points are aggregated into an overall total that can be restricted based on the group in which the user is a member. This allows users to service their needs themselves, within reason, without either bothering the administrator with tedious tasks or overburdening the system with VM creep.

The Last Word

Overall, I find SCVMM to be a compelling solution for managing virtual machines across your enterprise. I was impressed by the scope of management available, and in some ways, having SCVMM manage VMware hosts and virtual machines seems superior to using VMware's own tools because the UI is easier to use than the VMware interface and SCVMM plugs in better with the rest of your Microsoft infrastructure. And the extensibility of the management capabilities via PowerShell is second to none. The integration with Operations Manager and the PRO performance optimization features seal the deal.

If you find yourself looking to integrate VM administration in your enterprise beyond native tools, SCVMM is absolutely worth your time to evaluate. As of this writing, pricing hadn't yet been finalized.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUS, Hardening Windows, Using Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Learning Windows Server 2003. His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Windows IT Pro magazine, PC Pro and TechNet Magazine. He also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is currently an editor at Apress Inc., a publishing company specializing in books for programmers and IT professionals.

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