VMware Akimbi acquisition bears fruit

Managing virtual test and development labs is the next frontier for VMware with its new Lab Manager product. But analysts warn users of VMware lock-in.

VMware Inc.'s acquisition of Akimbi Systems last June has borne fruit. The day before the start of the company's annual VMworld 2006 user conference in Los Angeles, the company announced VMware Lab Manager, which automates the set up and tear down of virtual machines used by test and development groups.

With Lab Manager in place, developers are armed with a self-service Web console that allows them to go in and request the virtual machine resources they need, selecting from pre-configured images stored on a VMware Infrastructure 3 (VI3) server.

The main benefit of Lab Manager is that provisioning and de-provisioning test machines gets done much more quickly, said James Phillips, VMware senior director of virtual software lifecycle automation solutions. Today, requests to IT by developers for test resources "can take up to a week to be fulfilled," Phillips said. With Lab Manager, he said, "the IT organization no longer has to do manual set-up work."

The technical services division of Kane County Government in Geneva, Ill., is a heavy VI3 shop. It has been beta testing Lab Manager for the past couple of weeks and has borne out VMware's time savings claims, reported CTO David Siles.

"My application development manager was pretty psyched when we first started using virtualization, but it was always a pain for him because he had to work with technical services," Siles said. After importing a few templates for him, "now he can do everything himself and he's pretty happy."

The global development village

But it's a Lab Manager feature called "LiveLink" that really highlights the benefits of using virtualization for test and development, Phillips said.

Because a virtual machine is just a file that reflects a machine's state, it is possible to save a copy of a running virtual machine and share it with colleagues. For example, a QA engineer finds a bug. With Lab Manager and LiveLink, the QA engineer can capture the VM and its state, and enters a so-called LiveLink URL to that VM in a bug report. Developers can then click on the link to load the exact VM and fix the bug.

"This is what I call the emotional epicenter of our product," said Phillips. "When developers see this, their jaws drop."

That's especially true of people in large, decentralized environments that have off-shore developers. "In highly distributed development teams, the ability to connect with people across space and time is very compelling," Phillips said.

Pricing for VMware Lab Manager starts at $15,000, plus $500 per CPU for every managed VMware Infrastructure 3 server. The company is also making available a Lab Manager bundle that includes Lab Manager Server, agents, VI3 licenses and VMware Workstation for $35,000.

The market for virtual lab management

By all accounts, the market for virtual lab management software is still in its infancy.

"It's not uncommon for me to see developers using virtualization, but they tend to use it in one-off ad-hoc ways," said Carey Schwaber, analyst with Forrester Research Inc. "It's less common to see them using commercial virtual lab management products."

At the same time, Schwaber reports that she's been fielding a lot of inquiries about virtual lab management recently. "Development teams have been struggling with managing their test labs all along, and they're wondering if virtualization can help them."

But for shops considering VMware Lab Manager, the question will be whether they want to lock into a VMware environment, Schwaber said. "VMware is all about spreading the use of VMware in the enterprise." In contrast, the handful of other virtual lab management vendors all tout some degree of heterogeneous platform support.

For example, VMLogix out of Bangalore, India, is launching its U.S. operations this week. Its LabManager supports Microsoft Virtual Server as well as VMware Server and Workstation.

The other main player, Surgient Inc., also recently started supporting Microsoft Virtual Server in version 5.0 of its Virtual QA/Test Lab Management System (VQMS) 5.0. Other features in the release include an improved GUI reservation and scheduling system and scalability.

But Microsoft Virtual Server support was definitely the key feature, said Erik Josowitz, Surgient vice president of marketing. "Customers are not settling on one type of virtualization. They're concerned about investments having some life to them," he said.

Crossroads Systems Inc. in Austin, Texas, is a storage vendor that uses Microsoft Virtual Server plus Surgient VQMS to test and develop a database protection appliance called StrongBox. As the number of databases and platforms StrongBox supported started to grow, the process of setting up and tearing down the servers became increasingly onerous, said Judith Dietz, Crossroads' senior development manager. With VMQS, she said, "we can move among virtual images quickly, and it saves us an unbelievable amount of time."

Physical system support still lacking

But Dietz admitted that testing on virtual machines can only take them so far. "We get pretty good coverage from Surgient for x86," but Crossroads also needs to test StrongBox for databases running on RISC-based Sun Solaris and IBM AIX platforms.

Surgient's Josowitz concurs. "Virtualization covers Intel-based environments very well, but in a complex testing environment, there are systems that require non-Intel based support," he said.

And that, said Forrester's Schwaber, is where today's virtual lab management products still fall short. When it comes to supporting the virtual as well as physical world, "no one really does that yet," she said.

What do you think of this story? Email: Alex Barrett, News Director

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