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Introduction to virtualization systems management tools

Expert Brien Posey discusses what virtualization systems management is used for and how it can help organizations with large and complex infrastructures.

Server virtualization technology promised to drive down costs through hardware consolidation. The idea was that rather than running each workload on a separate physical server, unused hardware capacity could be used to run several workloads simultaneously in the form of virtual machines (VMs).

Although server virtualization ultimately lived up to the hype, it was not without side effects. One such side effect was virtual machine sprawl. It became so easy to create new virtual machines that organizations suddenly found themselves tasked with managing an overwhelming number of VMs and host servers. This problem led to the creation of virtualization systems management tools.

Every hypervisor includes basic tools for managing the host server and the VMs that reside upon it. Virtualization systems management tools are generally designed to augment the capabilities found in the basic management tools. In many cases, virtualization systems management tools are offered by the same vendors that create the hypervisor, but are sold separately. There are also numerous third-party vendors that offer products for managing, monitoring or analyzing the virtualization infrastructure.

Key characteristics

Of course, this raises the question of why an organization might need an additional management tool when the hypervisor already includes its own. The reason for this is that the management tools that come with hypervisors such as VMware ESX and Microsoft Hyper-V tend to take a server-centric view of the virtualization infrastructure. For example, the Hyper-V Manager (the management tool that is included with Microsoft Hyper-V) is designed to manage a single Hyper-V server.

This approach is inefficient because production environments almost always consist of multiple hypervisors. As such, the primary function of a virtualization systems management tool is to provide an organization-wide view of the virtualization infrastructure.

At its most basic level, a virtualization systems management tool should be able to display all of the host servers and all of the VMs that are present within the organization's virtualization infrastructure. Such tools almost always provide the ability to perform basic maintenance tasks such as creating or removing virtual machines, provisioning storage or migrating a virtual machine from one host server to another. As such, the tool allows for comprehensive management of the entire server virtualization infrastructure.

Although a virtualization systems management tool is first and foremost a tool for managing virtual machines and host servers, the various vendors tend to offer a number of capabilities that go far beyond basic VM management. For example, some of the available tools allow virtual machines to be generated from templates and may also include various automation features. For instance, Microsoft's product makes it possible to consolidate virtual machines onto the fewest number of host servers at night, and then shut down the unused hosts as a way of saving power.

Other tools, such as Foglight from Dell, offer deep analytic capabilities. The software is designed to monitor for conditions that could eventually prove to be problematic and then generate alerts so that an administrator can take corrective actions. In some cases, the software even offers single-click remediation. Foglight also has the ability to detect hardware resources that are being wasted through oversized virtual machines, abandoned images and unused templates, and then reclaim those resources.

Some tools even provide functionality you might not expect from a virtualization systems management product. Probably the best example of this is Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) which has the ability to create and manage private clouds.

The most important criteria an organization should look for when selecting a virtualization systems management tool is hypervisor compatibility. Most tools are designed to work with a specific hypervisor, although cross-platform products are available. If you are considering one of the cross-platform tools, make sure the tool fully meets your needs. Some cross-platform tools provide better support for some hypervisors than others.

Key players

There are ten primary players in the virtualization systems management tools market. Not surprisingly, three of these players are VMware, Microsoft and Citrix -- each of which sells products that support their own hypervisors. The virtualization systems management tools that currently have the greatest market share include:

  • VMware vCenter and vRealize Suite (many of the third-party tools have similarities to the vRealize Suite)
  • Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager
  • Citrix Systems XenCenter
  • VMTurbo Operations Manager
  • Dell Foglight
  • 5Nine Manager for Hyper-V
  • Embotics vCommander
  • SolarWinds Virtualization Manager
  • Splunk Virtualization Monitoring System
  • Ipswitch WhatsVirtual

It is worth noting that although VMware vCenter, Microsoft SCVMM, and Citrix XenCenter are generally considered to be proprietary, vendor specific management tools there is a degree of cross-platform support provided by Citrix and Microsoft. XenCenter is open source and extensible, and could theoretically be used to manage competing platforms. Similarly, Microsoft SCVMM is designed primarily as a tool for managing Hyper-V, but also provides limited support for managing VMware and Citrix environments.

Third-party management tools:

  • VMTurbo Operations Manager
  • Dell Foglight
  • 5Nine Manager for Hyper-V
  • Embotics vCommander
  • SolarWinds Virtualization Manager
  • Splunk Virtualization Monitoring System
  • Ipswitch WhatsVirtual

Of course, this raises the question of why a company might need a third-party virtualization management tool. The third-party management tools that are being discussed in this series are widely varied, but may deliver features that are not found in the hypervisor vendor's tools such as better cross-platform support or deep analytic and reporting capabilities.

The cost of deployment

Virtualization systems management tools are sold separately from the hypervisor. Each vendor has its own pricing structure for its own products. Pricing is typically based around factors such as the number of sockets present in the server that will run the software, the number of virtual machines being managed and the size of the organization.

For example, VMware offers two different editions of vCenter. There is VMware vCenter Server Foundation, which is geared toward smaller organizations, and VMware vCenter Server Standard, which is for large deployments. The license cost for vCenter Server Foundation is $1,495, and licensing for vCenter Server Standard costs $4,995. VMware's vRealize Suite includes advanced automation and management capabilities for larger virtualization deployments, and can be used to manage private and hybrid clouds. The vRealize Suite is licensed either per-OS instance or per-CPU. The Advanced edition costs $575 per OS instance or $5,750 per CPU. The Enterprise edition costs $995 per operating system instance or $9,950 per CPU.

Dell uses a more simplified pricing model that is based around the number of sockets present in the server, with licenses starting at $799 per socket.

Microsoft, meanwhile, sells a Standard and a Datacenter edition of Virtual Machine Manager. The Standard edition sells for $1,323 and covers either two operating system environments (OSEs) or two physical processors (which ever number is greater). The Datacenter license sells for $3,067 and applies to an unlimited number of OSEs, but only covers two sockets. In other words, a separate data center license is required for every two sockets.

Citrix XenCenter is a free, open source management tool for Citrix XenServer.

As you can see, each vendor has its own approach to pricing. This holds true for the hypervisor vendors and the third-party vendors. Some vendors, such as 5Nine use a simple and straightforward pricing structure ($199 per host for 5Nine Manager without any antivirus, and $249 per host for 5Nine Manager with antivirus), while others use a much more complex pricing structure. Still others vendor such as Ipswitch do not disclose pricing information at all.

Most of these vendors offer product support for an additional cost. You should determine your organization's needs and usage when choosing support options.

Conclusion

A virtualization management tool should be considered an essential investment for any organization that is highly virtualized. Although it is possible to manage large scale server virtualization deployments without a management tool, doing so quickly becomes impractical as the deployments size increases.

It is worth noting that many of the third-party tools go beyond simple virtualization management and perform deep infrastructure analytics and reporting.

Next Steps

How to choose a virtualization systems management tool

What to look for when shopping for a virtualization systems management tool

Virtualization management tools still lacking what customers want

This was last published in July 2015

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