VCloud Director no shoo-in for VMware Lab Manager shops

VCloud Director has been positioned as a replacement for VMware’s test and development offering, Lab Manager. But experts say VMware has cut bait on lab management and set out for a larger catch in the cloud.

With VMware’s Lab Manager officially “end-of-lifed,” VMware appears to have shifted its focus from the lab management market in favor of private clouds. But it remains unclear whether existing Lab Manager users will follow VMware there.

Both Lab Manager and VMware’s private cloud offering, vCloud Director, enable the pooling of infrastructure resources among vSphere hosts as well as on-demand self-service through standardized templates, VMware said in a statement, explaining its decision to end-of-life Lab Manager.

Lab Manager will reach end of life in May 2013. Until then, VMware will exchange Lab Manager licenses for vCloud Director licenses without a conversion fee, it said in an FAQ. Also, according to a separate statement, “over time, functionally specific uses, like dev/test, are expected to be delivered on the same enterprise infrastructure-as-a-service platform as [are]other applications that move to the cloud,” such as vCloud Director.

The rocky road to vCloud Director
Users and channel partners had already recognized the high-level overlap between Lab Manager and vCloud Director and knew the writing on the wall for Lab Manager well before VMware made things official.

But on closer inspection, some say, there are substantial gaps between the products in terms of features, scope and cost that could make converting to vCloud Director a significant undertaking.

In terms of technical features, vCloud Director doesn’t currently support Linked Clones, a way of provisioning multiple virtual machine (VM) images using a minimal amount of disk to cut costs in less-than-critical lab environments. Linked Clones also allow developers to check resources in and out simultaneously without spawning new disk images and while saving storage space.

Currently, vCloud Director also requires an Oracle database on the back end, while Lab Manager users are accustomed to Microsoft SQL Server. On this front, VMware officials hinted the Oracle requirement may change. “We understand the importance of choice and are committed to providing increased deployment options in the future,” said a VMware spokesperson via email.

Lab Manager and vCloud Director also have different prerequisites and are licensed differently. In the case of most environments, Oracle licensing and skill sets come at a higher cost than that for SQL Server. And though VMware has said it will allow users to exchange licenses for the two products, Lab Manager is licensed per socket, and vCloud Director is licensed per virtual machine. The conversion ratio for license exchanges has not been made public.

Aside from these issues, vCloud Director also requires VMware’s Enterprise or Enterprise Plus licensing levels on a host. “If you’re going to use any kind of distributed virtual switch, you need Enterprise Plus for sure,” said Maish Saidel-Keesing, a virtual infrastructure admin for a technology company in Israel, who had been doing a pilot of Lab Manager before the end-of-life news came out.

In a more complex vCloud environment, a distributed virtual switch “will make your life a lot easier” because network ports don’t have to be manually managed within a dynamic infrastructure, Saidel-Keesing said. "You could run [vCloud Director] on a regular switch, but that makes life a lot more difficult.”

In the meantime, even as vCloud Director is more complex, it’s also less mature than is Lab Manager, which was released in 2006 based on intellectual property that VMware acquired from Akimbi. And there is still plenty of “fine print” associated with vCloud Director version 1.0, which was just released last August.

Finally, there are the organizational and cultural changes necessary to move to an all-encompassing private cloud environment using software like vCloud Director, as opposed to a purpose-built lab manager product that is limited in scope.

Weighing virtual lab management options
There’s time for vCloud Director to mature further while Lab Manager is supported over the next two years. Meanwhile, Lab Manager will continue to function and will be kept up to date with new vSphere releases until the end-of-life date, according to VMware’s FAQ.

Still, at least one channel partner working with multiple Lab Manager customers said that it’s too soon for him to tell whether the conversion process will be worth it for all his customers.

“Most of our customers that have Lab Manager bought it specifically for the dev environment,” said Brandon Worrell, a cloud enablement group manager for Salt Lake City-based systems integrator Solutions II. Some of Worrell’s customers will also need to port code written to the Lab Manager application programming interfaces (APIs) to newer vCloud Director APIs.

“We have some customers that are excited about turning their Lab Manager infrastructure, that they like, into an enterprise cloud infrastructure, but they don’t know what that means yet in terms of licensing and … conversion,” Worrell said. “We have until 2013…but it’s going to be a long process.”

At the same time, it’s unclear how many VMware shops took advantage of Lab Manager for test and development environments. Instead, some enterprises report “walling off” segments of their existing ESX clusters without a separate Lab Manager environment.

“A lot of what VMware puts out can be done internally through scripts,” said Chris Rima, supervisor of infrastructure systems for a utility in the Southwest. “If you have some smart people, they can do some administrative-type scripting and produce something that is at least kind of what Lab Manager does. Not fully -- but it meets the business needs for getting dev and test environments up and down quickly.”

VMware declined to disclose its current number of Lab Manager customers.

Some developers have taken an entirely different tack: spinning up resources in public clouds and avoiding in-house lab management tools, according to Tony Iams, an analyst for Ideas International. This is something enterprises may want to control with a tool such as vCloud Director, but, Iams said, that approach could meet with resistance in the dev world. “People don't need vCloud Director to do development in the public cloud,” he said. “And if IT imposes a burdensome and expensive layer [to control it], developers could do an end run around it anyway and still take care of it themselves. “

Nevertheless, the cloud is clearly where VMware wants to take its Lab Manager customers. “Cloud computing, public and private, is considered superior to the traditional IT network,” wrote David Kaczorowski, equity research associate at Wedbush Securities, in an email. “vCenter Lab Manager provisions and manages computing power of each server as a discrete entity, and is thus a tool for the traditional IT network.  Therefore, [Lab Manager] is a product that serves a shrinking customer base.”

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com.

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