Cloud management software: What’s in it for IT?

Highly virtualized IT shops wonder whether cloud management software can help them get to the next level of automation and efficiency.

While the average enterprise IT shop remains firmly grounded in its virtualized data centers, cloud computing is the next phase of evolution. The problem is, companies don’t quite know how to get there with the tools that they have.

A number of new cloud management software offerings from vendors large and small promise to move virtual infrastructure to the vaunted private cloud and serve as a bridge to public clouds.

Big name vendors like VMware Inc. with vCloud Director, Microsoft Corp. with System Center, and BMC with Cloud Lifecycle Management and a host of startups offer cloud management software that provide self-service provisioning and service catalogs, policy-based workflows and automation, and a bridge to public cloud resources.  

It’s very early days, but the advantages of cloud have some early adopters taking the bait.

Build, deploy, repeat
Some industry observers see the cloud management tool buzz as a proxy for disenchantment with the current virtualization management offerings.

“When enterprise IT managers talk about cloud management, they’re usually saying ‘We’ve run out of easy victories for pure virtualization,’” said Tom Cecere, director of product management for cloud offerings at NetIQ, which are targeted at cloud service providers such as telecoms and MSPs.

Indeed, some firms look to cloud management software to bring additional automation and repeatability to manual IT operations processes.

Walz Group, Inc., a document management services provider in Temeculah, Calif., is evaluating cloud management software to help it predictably and rapidly scale out its infrastructure in response to new business.

“We have customers that have given us some portion of their business, and they’ll end up saying ‘Look, take all of our documents,’” said Bart Falzarano, chief information security officer at the firm. When that happens, IT rushes to add and configure new infrastructure, including security policies, such as VLAN demarcation, that are critical in its regulated, multi-tenant environment.

To help his team get there, Falzarano is evaluating VMware vCloud Director, Cisco Intelligent Automation, BMC Cloud LifeCycle Manager and Cloupia Inc.’s Unified Infrastructure Controller, the latter of which is appealing because it supports the NetApp/Cisco FlexPod, which the company runs. Cloupia is also easy to get up and running, he said.

“I want a tool that will allow operators to manage multiple data centers holistically, through a single tool, and deploy infrastructure in a repeatable fashion,” he said.

Cloud management software isn’t just about automating back-end server workloads – it’s a good fit for managing virtual desktops, too.

One multinational financial organization deployed DynamicOps Inc. for its VMware and Citrix desktop virtualization environment to reduce the time it takes to provision user desktops.

“Right now, it can take a few days to get a user their desktop – and that’s being generous,” said the firm’s head of desktop engineering. “There are so many hand-offs and approval processes in place that it can take a long time to actually get the desktop to the user.”

The firm hopes implementing DynamicOps will speed up the provisioning process from several days to minutes. Down the road, automation provided by its cloud management stack will help the bank perform automatic reclamation of underused resources, the executive added. “If we see that there’s a desktop that’s not active, we’ll quiesce it and free up resources for other parts of our infrastructure.”

Tapping public cloud
Others look out to the cloud and see limitless pools of compute resources there for the taking – if only there was an easy way to get at them.

The University of Plymouth, in the U.K., for example, leases equipment on a four-year cycle and must be very careful to purchase enough upfront capacity to meet its needs over that period. As a result, it tends to significantly overbuy on hardware.

The ability to “burst” to the public cloud rather than overprovision hardware could save the university money, said Adrian Jane, infrastructure and operations manager.

But he doesn’t feel that the cloud ecosystem is mature enough for this use case yet.

Indeed, there are very few applications available today that can take advantage of cloud bursting, said Bernd Harzog, analyst at The Virtualization Practice, a virtualization resource firm based in Waltham, Mass.

“What does bursting mean in its simplest form? It means that adding instances is easy and useful,” Harzog said. Workloads that might burst successfully include scale-out multi-tier applications comprised of Web, Java and database servers, where the tiers are relatively self-contained, he said, and not susceptible to running outside the internal high-speed network.

That being said, “a tiny fraction of apps in the world are architected that way,” he said.

Meanwhile, providing a single pane of glass view of resources in both the private and public cloud is a key feature of many cloud management systems, Harzog added. All the major cloud management platforms have connectors to public cloud providers as well as local virtual environments, and try to make it relatively easy to deploy new apps to the cloud from their console.

Out from under Amazon EC2
For others that have deployed cloud management software, the goal has been twofold: to offer shared services that comply with the organizations’ data privacy policies, and to get out from under the high cost of public cloud.

A global media company built a private cloud last year using cloud management software from DynamicOps. It uses the software to host Web applications, for test/dev and for disaster recovery.

For them, the private cloud is a destination for all of the company’s applications that can’t run on Amazon EC2 because of data privacy concerns, or because it costs too much.

The company has found that when an enterprise workload is powered on for more than 50% of the time, it’s actually more cost effective to run the workload internally than on EC2, said the IT executive responsible for the private cloud project.

With its super-low, per-compute-hour cost, EC2 looks good at first glance, he said. But in order to achieve enterprise-class service levels, Amazon forces you to purchase additional services, such as load balancing, replication across availability zones, virtual private cloud (VPC) services, or its highly available Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) – and all those services add up.

“They kind of nickel and dime you,” the IT executive said.

While he considers this internal private cloud project a success, the adoption goals were modest. Thus far, a small percentage of the company’s business units utilize the internal private cloud, and he hopes to achieve 35% adoption over three years.

“It’s kind of like with virtualization,” he said.“When it first arrived, people still wanted their apps on physical servers, and you had to talk them in to running in a virtual machine.”

Likewise, the company’s business units still tend to turn to departmental IT resources to host new workloads, rather than the centralized private cloud.

What these cloud management products are good at is letting people easily order up resources for a transient use case – such as a test or a QA environment – use it for a while, and be done with it, said The Virtualization Practice’s Harzog.

“Where cloud management is not, is managing how everything gets done,” he said. “Ultimately, where you want to be is that everything runs in your cloud – all the processes, all the management schemes that everyone uses. We are a long, long way from that.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, Executive Editor at abarrett@techtarget.com, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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