What effect will x86-server virtualization have on systems management?

As x86-server virtualization sweeps the data center, how will the various systems management tools adapt to the sea change?

Systems management vendors have been slow to react to the x86-server virtualization revolution, but analysts say they can't afford to ignore it any longer.

The stories from the field are convincing enough. Fred Johannessen, a program executive at Houston-based management software firm BMC, got strong confirmation from colleagues at a recent sales meeting that virtualization is here to stay. "I asked the room, 'Can any of you find an account that isn't running VMware?' and not one of them raised their hand."

With those kind of adoption rates, companies are scrambling to buy or grow virtualization features across every layer of IT management software.

For many users, virtual machines will look and behave very much the same as their physical counterparts in a macro-management system like HP's OpenView or IBM's Tivoli software.

That's by design, said Kevin Leahy, director of marketing for virtualization at IBM. "If you built out tools for just virtual machine management or for just physical, you'd make management more complex," Leahy said.

"These control panels to the front-end interfaces that administrators have is deeply ingrained," said Tony Iams, senior analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International. "Processes and practices are tied into those interfaces, and users want to have the same interfaces side by side."

Management functions such as backup or patch management aren't greatly affected by differences between physical and virtual machines from the 100-foot view.

"At the top layer, customers are concerned that the applications are running," Johannessen said. "If they're running, you almost don't care about the lower level."

Not business as usual

Although it may sound like business as usual for end users, companies are investing in new functions. Computer Associates recently advanced its abilities to recognize virtual machines and straddle the physical and virtual layers with its Advanced Systems Management package for UniCenter. And IBM has rolled out new functions including chargeback features for virtual environments and automated tools.

"Virtualization actually increases the need for management," Leahy said. "Adding automation gets to the value of virtualization."

But analysts say users aren't ready to relinquish control. "Everyone I know in the IT management space pays homage to 'auto-magical' automation," said Jonathan Eunice, principal at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata. "But data center managers are more concerned with what they can do today rather than what feats of technical greatness they can get to in five years."

Bigger changes have happened at the element manager level, where virtual machine management intersects with hardware. Programs like IBM's Director, HP's System Insight Manager (SIM) and BMC's Performance Manager all tie into VMware's APIs to give these hardware monitoring programs a look at what's happening in the virtualization layer.

"HP's SIM is the best built out of them," Eunice said. "But virtualization isn't the centerpiece of what SIM can manage -- all of the companies are in the process of coming to grips with virtualization."

SIM was recently modified to recognize and manage the different kinds of virtual machines, said Nick van der Zweep, HP director of virtualization. It can stop them and start them, and change configuration, all from its single interface.

Management by VMware

But to do that, all of these programs need VMware's management software. Element managers with virtual machine plug-ins can manage the physical, virtual and application layers, but they have to call the VMware tools to do actions on a virtual layer.

The VMware tools include Virtual Center, which manages the hypervisor on ESX, GSX and the forthcoming VMware server. Virtual Center 2 is coming out In June.

VMware also sells VMotion, which offers live migration of virtual machines so users can transfer them to other physical machines with no downtime.

The cost of buying these licenses adds up fast, but most companies are charging licensing fees on a per-hardware node basis rather than charging by the number of virtual machine images.

Experts said that some of the most interesting features in virtualized systems management are from startup companies. Iams points to newcomers like Cassatt and Platespin as companies that are making names for themselves.

Although these companies are interesting to technologists, they don't have a lot of appeal to many data center managers.

"We've seen some presentations from companies like XenSource to IT buyers, and the CIOs are saying, 'Why come to me? The person I'm going to buy this function from is the system vendor or Red Hat,'" Eunice said. "It's not that they don't want the function, but the buyer is looking for a bigger package than one of these virtualization specific entities can provide."

Matt Stansberry is Editor of SearchDataCenter.com.

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