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What to know when shopping for virtualization systems management tools

There are many important factors to consider when choosing a systems management tool.

Deciding on a new virtualization systems management tool is a daunting task when you consider the dizzying array of available features and the price you'll be asked to pay for them. Selecting the right software will be an exercise in evaluating your needs and matching a tool's capabilities to your environment. Last year, we asked IT professionals about how they went about evaluating and selecting a virtualization systems management tool. While many of the responses were expected -- price and dashboard features topped the list as the most important factors in making a decision -- there were also some unexpected results. This month, we're asking our Advisory Board members to share how they evaluate systems management tools and whether they can glean any insight into the direction businesses are heading, based on our survey results.

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

Deciding to purchase a new management system for your virtual infrastructure is a critical purchase that can save you incredible amounts of time, effort and money if done correctly. Conversely it can also cost you the same if it's done incorrectly, so care and common sense must be at the forefront of this purchase. There are a few things to take a look at that might help to make some of the decisions a bit easier.

All roads are the same

The majority of the tools are using the APIs or pulling data from VMware vCenter, which is the central repository. While additional features or automation can be added on the front end, these will not enable new features inside your virtual environment. In the end, automation and management are still making function calls to vCenter. When it comes to monitoring, on average, vCenter has a fifteen to twenty second delay from when something is occurring to when it is shown. This time can change depending on the size of the environment, but it's pretty consistent. Some tools will talk about response time and real-time monitoring, but they are still using the data vCenter provides, just with a different display.

Weighing cost, performance and stability

Whether you're looking at a car or a systems management tool, cost is still a big consideration. You want to balance the scalability of the tool with the cost, all while ensuring that it will be able to grow and support your organization for years to come. Today we can buy a car that goes 85 mph or a sports car that goes 155 mph. While the kid in me would prefer the sports model, the reality is that most likely I will never need that level of performance. The same can be said for management tools. Having a tool that can scale up to hundreds of vCenters and thousands of hosts might be bit overkill for many businesses. Plus, any tool that claims to be able to monitor environments that large might have some performance issues. Finding a balance between the smart car and the sports car is not always easy, but give yourself enough horsepower today with a bit of extra to make it up the big hills without breaking the bank.

Managing your environment

To get from point A to point B with a car, the controls tend to be the same in most cars today. The gas pedal, brakes and steering wheel have been around for a number of years and have proved successful. Management of your virtual environment is similar; the basic functions of deploying and decommissioning of resources has not changed greatly. However, where additional management tools come in is with the add-ons they bring. Similar to cruise control or electronic steering, the systems management tool brings additional features. Automation and self-service helps reduce tedious tasks and gives users more control. Support for process flow and approval are also key shopping features along with open APIs for additional integration.

Look and feel

For many people shopping for cars, styling is secondary to key indicators, such as mpg or safety ratings. Many people are even hesitant to admit that looks should factor into your decision, but the reality is that it does.

A well-designed, customizable dashboard is critical in communicating information to the personnel working with or monitoring it. If the dashboard is not simplistic in design and doesn't use identifiable controls and metrics, it becomes useless. The dashboards should be able to tell you (with minimal effort) what you need to do and what is going on at a given moment. From the moment you select a resource, you should be able to access additional details without having to suffer through multiple clicks. A well-designed dashboard should also have captured trending data to show past utilization and future trends. This data should not be a product of data mining, but be accessible with a few clicks. 

Just like shopping for a car, when looking for a systems management tool, always pay attention to key things like warranty, support and community feedback.

Jim O'Reilly, Volanto

TechTarget's survey about the objectives determining the choice of a new virtualization systems management tool provides some interesting insight. As expected, systems and security management made the top three features, and price was quoted as the most important factor, by far.

There were some surprises. Multi-tenancy support was listed only half as frequently as price as a factor, and multi-hypervisor support even less. Private cloud management was also low on the totem pole, with just half the score of the top "server availability monitoring." These are all crucial features of hybrid clouds, so it's clear that there is an information gap, at least between statistics,  which appear to show that two thirds of enterprises expect to have hybrid clouds within a year and the reality of what that takes.

Any decision to select a new management system has to take the hybrid cloud into account. That's where IT services are going, whether we like it or not. More intrepid souls talk about skipping past hybrid to an all-public model. Virtualization isn't the answer to agility and a robust, agile modern IT operation. The lack of interest in multi-tenancy and multi-hypervisors or private cloud management indicates that this message still has to percolate its way through in quite a few IT shops.

This may reflect a lack of knowledge around the issue of hybrid clouds, or perhaps a disconnect between senior management and the people actually doing the job. If so, IT organizations need to spend time and money on getting their team up to speed.

The reason preparing for hybrid clouds is so important is that changing management tools will be a very painful exercise after even a year of use. Good tools come with policy-driven governance, and templates for creating and controlling instances. Rebuilding these for a new system will be a major chore. Once the IT team and the user base are invested in a particular solution, replacing it will feel like changing the operating system from Linux to Windows.

Beyond the hybrid cloud issue, it's clear from the survey that storage isn't a high priority. That's unfortunate, though the 30 years of essentially stagnant technology in storage may account for it. We are moving to a data-centric world. It will be all about the storage in a few years, as we optimize workflow and resources to best take advantage of the many storage options we will face.

Any new management tool has to have rock-solid storage credentials and offer ways to control all of the storage operations easily, from access control and encryption through deduplication, backup and archiving. Ideally, the toolkit should cover all the aspects of orchestration in a single tool, but a mash up is possible if storage gets its proper emphasis.

One of the toughest buying decisions didn't even make the list. We are facing a software-defined data center within a couple of years. If the systems management tool vendor can't articulate how their software will integrate with and manage a software-defined data center, the chances are that you'll be facing a virtual forklift upgrade within four years. That's not the best plan!

The bottom line is, don't solve just today's problem. Look to future-proof your decision as much as possible. This might point to a start-up with some creative ideas, or a well-tested but somewhat staid company, but either way, they need the roadmap to keep the IT department relevant in a few years' time.

Maish Saidel-Keesing, Cisco Video Technologies Israel

When choosing any kind of tool for your organization, you should always take a few things into account.

Interoperability with the existing tools you already have is an important quality for a systems management tool. Does the tool have the option to interface with my paging system, configuration management system, backup system and automation? Usually there will not be a single tool that will be able to do it all, but you should check which ones you cannot live without – or how difficult it will be to build or create such an interface.

The tool should also support more than one virtualization vendor. The day where there was only one hypervisor used in your data center is coming to an end. So, buying a management tool that only supports one hypervisor means you may eventually need another tool for the other hypervisor. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing a systems management tool, but you should invest a decent amount of time and thought into covering all the technologies you have today and that you may have in the future.

Next Steps

Five tips for choosing the right systems management tool

How a systems management tool can save power and money

Is it time to change your systems management tool?

This was last published in April 2015

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