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Virtualization without virtualization management cancels out benefits

Retaining the benefits gained through virtualization comes down to virtualization management policies and the tools of the trade.

The benefits gained through virtualization can be lost without an effective virtualization management strategy.

Enterprises gain agility, lean operations, disaster recovery and business continuity, as well as a virtualization management quagmire of policies, best practices documentation and tool sets that are a cycle behind the speed at which virtual environments are created.

At last count, Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. had 210 VMware Inc. ESX sockets in place, with 110 hosts across three data center sites -- actually, make that 224 sockets. As we spoke, Chris Pray, senior engineer of Vertex's global information systems group, received an order from the business for another 16 hosts. That's just virtual machine hosts, never mind the VMs needed to keep up with the hundreds of terabytes of scientific information being moved from site to site. "It's always a catch-up game as far as policies and procedures [for managing a virtual environment]," he said. "With virtualization, policies and procedures grow organically as you grow, and that's true here and at other companies I've worked at."

Independent Bank Corp. in Ionia, Mich., has a mix of about 500 virtual and physical servers, and expects to be 80% virtualized (both servers and desktops) by the end of 2011; but "what we really want is 90% virtualization," CIO Pete Graves said, adding that his team is approaching "that line of what's reasonable and not."

"You have to manage the speed by which this can grow, and draw the line for what can and what should be virtualized" Graves said. As a result, his virtualization management strategy is in a constant state of flux. "You never really get there; you're always improving on it and then having to shift gears and go in a different direction," he said.

Speed of deployment is one virtualization management aspect to tackle, but equally tricky is visibility. How do you manage VMs and resources you cannot see?

Tools and tricks of the virtualization management trade

Vertex's data center group has outgrown the virtualization management tools developed by the major hypervisor vendors, turning instead to best-of-breed virtualization and data center management tools.

One such management tool is Akorri Inc.'s BalancePoint for resource capacity monitoring of both physical and virtual machines; another is GroundWork Open Source Inc.'s network monitoring software, or what Pray calls "the monitor of all monitors." The open source tool centralizes the information gathered in other monitoring systems -- for example, SolarWinds Inc.'s Orion product for networks, VMware's vSphere and Red Hat Inc.'s Satellite Server -- onto a single pane of glass for Vertex's application developers and members of the data center team.

The company's most recent purchase was VKernel Corp.'s capacity management suite, which answers the questions "What can we put next on a given VM?" and "What is it going to do to my resources?" It allows Pray's team to rightsize the virtual environment, which is a task often overlooked and one that will cost a company in terms of over-allocation. The VKernel tool adjusts VM resources -- CPU, memory, disk and network -- as needed. "You need a tool that rightsizes existing VMs that are overprovisioned so you can avoid resource overkill," Pray said. "The job of the tool is to make [the environment] lean, to do the job with just the resources required. That's really the whole objective of virtualization."

Enterprises don't have to go the best-of-breed route for virtualization management. Systems management vendors IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., CA Inc. and BMC Software Inc. have support for multiple hypervisors, and integration with back-end systems down, said Chris Wolf, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Both are important factors for future-proofing your virtualization environment for private and public cloud service automation.

"Provisioning a VM is the easy part," Wolf said. "The secret sauce is the back-end integration and workflows with accounting systems, compute systems if something goes wrong, approval workflows for provisioning requests. You may have to re-architect [the management applications] a bit, but [the systems management] vendors will be around a long time to support you."

For Independent Bank, which operates in multiple virtualization environments and virtualizes its desktops with Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware hypervisors and Citrix technology, it's time to invest in an overarching management tool. Ben Kohn, senior systems architect for the bank, is testing Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), the next major release of which promises support for Citrix XenServer, and which supports VMware ESX already.

"If [VMM supports XenServer] it will be a pretty big help in terms of flattening management, so our staff can manage the environment independent of the underlying hypervisors," Kohn said.

Virtualization management policies to ponder

Know your requirements up front so that the multiple vendors you'll end up working with understand the tasks they need to perform, and how they will work with other vendors. A new virtualization environment entails managing your own IT department's culture and that of the multiple vendors you'll use, from the testing and deployment project phases to ongoing support, Graves said. Independent Bank worked with several vendors to engineer VMware vCenter Site Recovery Manager and its Citrix desktop virtualization environment.

"Have a really good statement of work, because if you don't, you end up with a lot of scope creep and questions about who was responsible for what," Graves said. "When you're dealing with multiple vendors, there's just a lot of room for things to go wrong."

And educate business units that there is a cost tied to deploying VMs. Units may not be aware that every new virtual machine introduced has a license, a fractional hardware cost and a lifecycle management cost tied to it, Graves said. "Most people forget about all of those traditional costs when a new VM is being added to existing hardware, and they don't know about other hidden costs."

You have to manage the speed by which this can grow, and draw the line for what can and what should be virtualized.

Pete Graves, CIO, Independent Bank Corp.

Naming conventions might seem small in the scheme of virtualization management, but they were the first order of business for Vertex's Pray. The company has three types of storage arrays that were referred to differently by team members and named differently in such monitoring tools as the VMware vSphere console. "You need one naming convention for data storage or you can't answer [questions about] where is the storage, what storage array is it on, what type of disks are on that storage array, and are they Fibre Channel or SATA [Serial Advanced Technology Attachment], to figure out what kind of protocol is being used to present the storage to the ESX host."

This leads to another management problem: skill sets -- or a lack of them -- in terms of understanding how all the pieces of a virtualization environment work together. Pray has been trying to staff up his virtualization team for a year now, but has found that candidates might understand VMware but not how that technology ties into networking, storage, backups and operating systems.

Mark Bowker, an analyst with The Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass., recommends tackling the skill sets of your staff by flattening the team that will work on virtualization projects and establishing the different groups that need to be involved: security, server, storage and networking. "Once you've done an organizational alignment, you can start modernizing skill sets and make management strategy decisions more confidently," he said.

Gartner's Wolf has a long checklist of the management policies needed to ensure that the benefits gained from virtualization are not wiped out by bad management:

  • Capacity management to understand how data will be collected.
  • Lifecycle management so that VMs are not just provisioned and kept online forever.
  • Application diagnostics and troubleshooting before a VM is rolled into production.

But equally important is the need to budget for management tools up front.

"If you go to the CFO six months after requesting capital for a multimillion virtualization project and say, 'I don't know what capacity I have, we're running out of space on clusters and I don't know how to handle it. I need more capital to purchase these tools,' that puts you in a precarious position," Wolf said.

And remember that virtualized environments are not static. VMs move around and they may move to a third-party environment. So, a tool set should track not only where VMs are in your own environment, but also their whereabouts, the data on them, and the resources or other systems tied to them, should you choose to move them to the cloud.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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