Server, desktop virtualization management tools: Mix at your own risk

Combining server and desktop virtualization management tools offers benefits but also creates hassles, our Server Virtualization Advisory Board members say.

As server and desktop virtualization technologies mature, it's natural for systems administrators to look for efficiencies by combining their management tools.

But the approaches to server and desktop virtualization are pretty different, and management tools that work well for one may not be a good fit for the other. Plus, in many organizations, one team manages the servers, while another team manages the desktops.

The Server Virtualization Advisory Board tackles the issue of combining server and desktop virtualization management tools in our question of the month:

Now that both servers and desktops are being virtualized, when does it make sense for the tools and processes of both environments to converge, and when does it make sense for them to remain separate?

Jack Kaiser, GreenPages Technology Solutions

As more and more companies adopt desktop virtualization, the challenge is managing and monitoring these environments. Unlike most server and storage virtualization projects that are generally centralized or consolidate one or two data centers, desktops are dispersed and rarely ever centralized. The other challenge in the typical scenario is that the server folks have implemented virtualization first. They ultimately have rolled it out to production and have built in high availability and scalability. The question is, do desktops need this level of redundancy? Either way, they do need high levels of security, due to the mobile nature of the environment.

The other question is, who is leading the movement of desktop virtualization: the server folks or the desktop folks? If it is the server team, they generally use the same set of tools. If it is the desktop team, they like their own set of tools and processes. As desktop virtualization becomes more common, there will be more and better tools that meet the needs of both the server and the desktop teams.

Rob McShinsky, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

The convergence of virtualization tools is already happening. As the differences between hypervisors become less distinct in regards to their base functionality, management tools become the next battleground for virtualization vendors. Suites from Microsoft, Citrix and VMware are already merging features from their own product sets. The expansion of functionality within these suites, along with alliances with hardware vendors, will prove to be key factors.

Due to different dynamics in workloads, I do not usually recommend combining virtual desktop and virtual server workloads on the same hardware. But the ability to manage these differing environments with the same toolset is critical to a vendor's success in the market -- and for administrators to manage these environments with peak efficiency. The progression of managing virtual environments will need to reach even further to more tightly integrate an all-encompassing management suite, including desktops, servers, storage and even the network stack.

CJ Metz, Orange County United Way

I don't believe that it makes sense for them to ever converge completely. I am of the opinion that you should keep your infrastructure separate for server virtualization and for desktop virtualization.

As for convergence, I see a lot of similarities in the hardware requirements between server and desktop virtualization, and most of the tools I am using already work for both. I would, however, like to see much more streamlined virtual desktop creation and deployment, similar to what already exists for server virtualization.

Where I think they should remain separate, at least to some regard, is in the realm of management. More than likely you will have a different person managing the servers versus the desktops, so you don't want a tool that has access across the board. At the same time the tools necessary to effectively manage servers versus desktops are not the same.

Eric Siebert, Boston Market

In a physical world, server hardware is very different from desktop hardware. But in a virtual world, all virtual machine hardware is identical, so management becomes easier. Tools that are aware of the virtualization layer are essential, as this ensures more accurate reporting and better monitoring. In addition, using the same tools for servers and desktops can help reduce operational costs and simplify administration.

But while the merging of tools makes sense in most cases, this does not hold true for some of the processes. Hardware aside, servers and desktops are very different from each other in the operating systems and applications that they run. Consequently, the processes for each are not always similar. Processes like monitoring, patching and backups are different and much more critical with servers than with desktops. So while the same tools may be used to manage both, care should be taken to segregate servers and desktops so processes do not become intertwined with each other.

Shannon Snowden, New Age Technologies

Since virtualization usually starts with servers, desktop virtualization often takes a data center-out approach. The tools and methods used are geared towards a much more static environment, since servers often run single applications. With server virtualization, end users may never know the application is on a virtual server.

This methodology works well enough for desktops, if they are for task-based workers with limited desktop needs. But it can quickly cross the threshold from a positive end-user experience to a negative one, because end users know when something changes on their desktops.

Specific tools made for desktop virtualization and focusing on the quality of the end-user experience are essential for successful projects. Before a single desktop is virtualized, a folder redirection and user profile solution needs to be in place. Additionally, the optimal end-user experience may actually be accomplished better with a blend of application virtualization and desktop virtualization.

Dave Sobel, Evolve Technologies

In general, management systems need to be able to manage both virtualized and physical hardware. Tools and process need to take into account the new virtualized world and, as much as possible, be managed from a single pane of glass. Minimizing the number of distinct tools and processes will make a solution provider more efficient and effective, particularly around managed services. The guideline is this: Combine as much as possible, only when business reasons keep you from doing so.

Rick Vanover, virtualization expert

Ideally, virtualized servers and desktops would use the same virtualization-specific tools and processes to avoid duplicate processes and, possibly, avoid additional licensing costs. Role-based administration can truly make the dividing lines of authority well defined. In the current landscape, VMware, Citrix and Microsoft all offer Active Directory-integrated security. This is critical, as options now exist to carve out standardized access to tools and processes across various infrastructure zones -- including out-of-band zones such as lab management.

On the other hand, it can make sense to maintain separated infrastructure zones when additional factors come into play. This can included outsourced administration of desktops, data access restrictions, compliance or infrastructure funding scenarios. The best arrangement will be a manifestation of organizational requirements, cost allocation and technical competency across the various infrastructure groups.

Have an idea for a future Server Virtualization Advisory Board question of the month? Email Colin Steele, Site Editor.

This was first published in August 2009

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