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Comparing the best server virtualization management software

Read as expert Brien Posey details what server virtualization management software package would benefit your organization the most according to key criteria.

This article explores what server virtualization management software package is the best fit for your organization, by examining several key criteria and comparing the strengths and weaknesses of ten leading applications.

Licensing

Licensing is an essential factor to consider when you're researching and purchasing server virtualization management software. These tools are licensed in many different ways. It's important for the software you select to be licensed in a way that suits your company's financial and business needs. How big is your organization? How many VMs need to be managed? These are questions to ask yourself when evaluating the licensing options.

Smaller organizations with limited budgets would be better suited for software that is available as an open source version or as a basic, standard edition. VMware offers a standard edition license, called VMware vCenter Server Essentials, which is designed for very small virtualized environments. Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager also has two licensing options. Their Standard Edition option is for non-virtualized or lightly virtualized environments. Another option for limited budgets is Citrix XenCenter, which is licensed under the BSD 2-Clause license. This software is open source and freely available to download. These options keep licensing costs low and make sense for organizations that are not too highly virtualized.

If your organization possesses a larger budget and manages a highly virtualized environment, there are more fitting licensing options available. VMware offers the VMware vCenter Server Standard license, which is geared towards larger organizations. It provides the same capabilities as the vCenter Server Foundation license, but allows for orchestration. Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager also offers a Datacenter Edition -- a licensing option for heavily virtualized environments. Dell Foglight and SolarWinds Virtualization Manager both offer socket-based licensing options for their enterprise editions.

Cross-platform functionality

Cross-platform support is not an essential feature for every organization, but it should be considered essential for organizations that are running hypervisors from multiple vendors. In those situations, cross-platform support may make it possible to manage multiple virtualization platforms through a single console.

None of the cross-platform products are as good at providing support as the native products are. The best management tool for Hyper-V is the one provided by Microsoft -- System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM). Similarly, the best server virtualization management software for managing VMware ESXi is VMware's own vCenter Server.

There are several tools that do provide relatively good cross-platform support. Turbonomic (formerly knows as VMTurbo), Dell Foglight, Embotics vCommander, SolarWinds Virtualization Manager and Splunk Virtualization Monitoring all provide support for the most widely used hypervisors. However, it's worth noting that there may be differences in how each hypervisor is supported, since the hypervisors are not identical to one another. A perfect example of this is Microsoft's SCVMM. This tool provides comprehensive support for managing Hyper-V and limited support for managing VMware ESXi and Citrix XenServer. Although the tool can manage VMware and Citrix environments, administrators will likely find themselves having to occasionally use native tools in order to compensate for the fact that Virtual Machine Manager doesn't provide comprehensive management capabilities for competing hypervisors.

Support for templates

Although there are many different types of templates that exist in virtualized environments, templates are generally used as a tool for automating VM deployments. In basic server virtualization environments, templates can be used to not only reduce the administrative burden associated with VM deployment, but are also used to ensure that VMs are configured in accordance with the organization's policies.

Templates are also an essential feature for private or hybrid cloud environments that allow for self-service provisioning of VMs. The provisioning process is almost always based on the use of pre-configured VM templates.

Much of server virtualization management software support the use of templates for the creation of VMs. These tools include VMware vCenter, Citrix XenCenter, Turbonomic, Microsoft SCVMM and 5Nine Manager. Some of the other tools provide indirect template support.

Ability to make changes to running VMs

VMs by their very nature are highly dynamic. Native hypervisor management tools, such as VMware's vSphere Web Client or Microsoft's Hyper-V Manager, allow VMs to be modified while they are running. The modifications that are allowed vary depending on the hypervisor, but commonly include things like changing a VM's memory allocation, adding a virtual hard disk or moving the VM to a different server. Third-party management tools should ideally expose such functionality as to prevent the administrator from having to resort to using native management tools to perform day-to-day maintenance of VMs.

Unsurprisingly, the hypervisor vendor's own tools tend to provide the greatest number of options for making changes to running VMs. Such tools include VMware's vCenter, Microsoft's SCVMMand Citrix' XenCenter. Most of the third-party management tools are not designed for granular, manual management of VMs. The exceptions are 5nine Manager, which provides nearly all of the same Hyper-V management capabilities as the native Hyper-V Manager tool, and SolarWinds Virtualization Manager, which provides very basic VM management capabilities.

Ability to manage storage

The vast majority of the VMs that are in existence today depend on the use of physical storage for storing VM configuration files and virtual hard disk files. At the very least, server virtualization management software needs to be able to interact with the physical storage to the extent necessary to create, modify or relocate virtual hard disk files. Some products, however, expose additional storage management capabilities.

Organizations that want basic storage monitoring capabilities, but do not need true storage management, might consider 5nine Manager, Embotics vCommander or SolarWinds Virtualization Manager. These packages provide good, general purpose storage monitoring. Splunk Virtualization Monitoring is another good choice for storage monitoring, but only for organizations that are using NetApp Data ONTAP storage. Turbonomic also provides some nice storage monitoring capabilities, although it requires a separate component called Storage Control Module, which is designed to work with NetApp and EMC storage.

When it comes to true storage management, beyond the ability to create, modify and relocate virtual hard disks, the thing to look for is native support for your storage vendor's products. VMware vCenter and Citrix XenCenter both provide deep awareness of specific storage hardware, although vCenter does depend on the use of plug-ins.

Ability to perform chargebacks

Chargebacks allow the IT department to bill internal customers for the resources they use. Given the fact that business models vary greatly, not every organization uses chargebacks. Chargeback use seems to be most common among organizations that have adopted private or hybrid clouds. Even so, any organization can use a chargeback feature, and there are some organizations that use chargeback capabilities as a mechanism for tracking costs, but without actually billing anyone. This practice is called a showback.

Server virtualization management software that include native chargeback capabilities include Embotics vCommander, SolarWinds Virtualization Manager, Dell Foglight and Splunk Virtualization Monitoring. Splunk's capabilities are marketed as change tracking and asset reporting, rather than as a chargeback feature, though.

Other vendors expose chargeback capabilities through the use of supplemental software. Microsoft enables chargebacks through System Center Operations Manager, while VMware exposes chargebacks through vRealize Business Enterprise. Citrix provides chargeback capabilities through XenServer Workload Balancing.

Self-service provisioning

Self-service provisioning capabilities are only used in private or hybrid cloud environments, in which authorized users have been granted the ability to create VMs on demand. Generally speaking, self-service provisioning tends to be most appropriate for large, heavily virtualized organizations. One reason for this is that private and hybrid cloud environments tend to be complex and difficult to implement. Self-service environments also tend to increase the help desk's workload.

Because self-service provisioning capabilities are a niche feature, most server virtualization management software don't include self-service provisioning support. The notable exception is Embotics vCommander, which provides self-service provisioning capabilities and supporting features, such as quotas and service catalogs.

Some of the vendors enable self-service provisioning through the use of external software. VMware, for instance, exposes self-service provisioning capabilities through vRealize Automation. Microsoft's SCVMM can be configured to act as a self-service environment, but lacks the necessary client component. A common approach is to use Azure Pack, which is a web interface that Microsoft makes freely available.

Automation

Automation can serve many purposes in a virtualization environment, from VM deployments to resource reclamation.

Although most server virtualization management software provides some sort of automation capabilities, these capabilities vary widely from one product to the next. For instance, Turbonomic uses automation to monitor VM workloads in real time and realigns resources on an as-needed basis in order to maintain performance. Another example is Dell Foglight, which can use automation to remediate issues that it detects.

Not all server virtualization management software includes native automation capabilities. The hypervisor vendors tend to expose automation capabilities through separate products. VMware exposes its automation capabilities through vRealize Orchestrator. Similarly, Microsoft's primary software for VM automation is System Center Orchestrator. Although Citrix doesn't include any significant automation capabilities in XenCenter, they do provide a PowerShell snap-in for XenServer that allows for do-it-yourself automation.

Reporting

A good reporting engine should be considered to be another essential requirement for server virtualization management software. A reporting engine can help administrators track hardware resource consumption, VM performance and license usage. Furthermore, reporting data can be useful for capacity planning.

Most of server virtualization management software available have fairly rich reporting capabilities. Some of these tools focus on one specific aspect of the virtualization platform, while others are more general. Dell Foglight, for example, focuses heavily on SLA compliance.

It's worth noting that there are vendors who require the purchase of an add-on product for reporting capabilities. VMware, for example, uses vRealize Log Insight as its primary reporting tool, while most of Microsoft's reporting capabilities exist within System Center Operations Manager.

Conclusion

Ultimately, none of the server virtualization management software applications that have been discussed are perfect for every situation. All of them have at least some degree of dependency on other software and are therefore not fully comprehensive on their own.

Organizations that are running a single hypervisor should purchase the management tool recommended by their hypervisor vendor (vCenter for VMware, SCVMM for Hyper-V). Other products can greatly improve monitoring capabilities, but should be regarded as augmentations to a native hypervisor management tool, rather than complete replacements. There are times when you will likely need a product, such as vCenter or Virtual Machine Manager, in order to make low-level configuration changes to your virtualization infrastructure.

The best product for your organization's needs is determined by your existing virtualization infrastructure, how you expect that infrastructure to evolve in the future and your perceived management needs.

If your organization is currently running a multi-hypervisor environment and needs a tool for day-to-day VM management, as opposed to monitoring, then you will most likely need a combination of tools. Microsoft's SCVMM is the best tool for cross-platform VM management. However, if you plan to use it to manage a VMware environment, you will also need to deploy a vCenter Server. Virtual Machine Manager can only manage VMware servers that are connected to vCenter. Furthermore, there are some low-level management tasks that must be completed using a native management tool. For example, you would need to use vCenter directly, rather than using the Virtual Machine Manager console. The current version of Virtual Machine Manager doesn't officially support versions of VMware beyond 5.1, but support for VMware 5.5 and 6.x are rumored to be supported in the next Virtual Machine Manger release. If you're looking for a third-party, cross-platform management tool, SolarWinds seems to do a good job.

If your goal is to monitor a multi-hypervisor environment, as opposed to managing it, then the best software is a toss-up between Embotics vCommander and Dell Foglight. Both products support a wide variety of hypervisors and do a good job of monitoring the virtualization infrastructure.

For organizations that wish to allow self-service provisioning of VMs, the best tool is Embotics vCommander. Of the tools that have been reviewed, Embotics vCommander provides the best experience for those who want to allow self-service provisioning. Virtual Machine Manager does a good job too, but requires Azure Pack. Although Azure Pack is free, it can be a lot of work to deploy and properly configure.

Finally, organizations that want to implement VM automation should consider Embotics vCommander. Embotics vCommander allows routine tasks, such as joining a VM to a domain, to be performed automatically. It's also possible to automate both the provisioning and the de-provisioning of VMs, which helps to reduce VM sprawl and its related challenges.

Next Steps

Discover the features to look for in top virtualization management tools.

Learn about common challenges of server virtualization management software and the tools that can address them.

Read about how you can make your server virtualization management tool perform better

This was last published in August 2016

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