Why virtualization admins and desktop hypervisors should be BFFs

For time-crunched server virtualization admins, desktop hypervisors offer an ideal environment for troubleshooting, configuring and distributing VMs.

Desktop hypervisors, such as VMware Workstation and Parallels Desktop, open up a world of management and troubleshooting possibilities for server virtualization admins.

Whether you are new to server virtualization or a seasoned veteran, there is a very good chance that your first hands-on experience with the technology was in the form of a desktop tool such as VMware Workstation, VMware Fusion, Parallels or even Windows Virtual PC. You probably installed it as a chance to kick the virtual tires or maybe to aid in a major operating system change.

Regardless of the reason, for many, the virtualization journey began with a desktop hypervisor. In fact, I don't think we give enough credit to just how great of a role these desktop tools play in the world of server virtualization.

Desktop hypervisors to the rescue

I was introduced to virtualization around 2004, when I managed a team of Unix administrators. Corporate policies kept pushing the Unix team toward using a Windows OS, while their job role required a Unix or Linux OS. To solve that problem, they requested copies of VMware Workstation.

At first, they ran a Linux virtual machine (VM) on Windows, but soon they were reformatting their desktops as Linux workstations and running Windows as a VM. Additionally, they ran multiple Unix and Linux OSes as virtual machines. Workstation unlocked all kinds of new doors for them and opened my eyes to the power of the desktop as a server host.

A few years later, as I was wrapping up a Friday afternoon, I received an urgent request to help the desktop team set up 20 Linux workstations with Apache Web servers and Java application servers for an application development training class, which was scheduled for the next Monday. There was no way I could build that many environments on time. So, instead of trashing my entire weekend, I created one Linux VM with all of the necessary tools on it. I burned a CD with the virtual machine and the installation file for VMware Player for the desktop team. I gave them simple instructions to copy the VM to each Windows training PC and install VMware Player. Both the training class and my weekend were saved.

There were two, huge benefits to this exercise, which I never envisioned. First, at the end of the week, the developers all copied the VMs back to the PCs at their desks and were able to preserve their training environment. Months later, developers told me how they continued to boot their training environment back up and review their lab exercises to help address issues in their daily work.

The second benefit would play out a few months later, but it was much bigger. As we began to virtualize servers in our data center, the developers were actually some of our biggest champions. They had experienced only a fraction of what server virtualization could do, but they saw the potential and were ready for more.

The versatility of desktop hypervisors

In the business world, I also use desktop hypervisors to deliver clones of compromised servers to administrators and security teams for forensics and troubleshooting, allowing the primary server to be restored to service while still preserving the evidence of what went wrong. Those goals often conflict: preserving a "broken" server for a full postmortem analysis versus restoring a core business function. Now we can achieve both goals, and everyone can take home a copy of the broken server for further analysis.

Now, as a consultant, I continue to see desktop hypervisors playing an important role. I have VMs on my Apple laptop emulate storage arrays from both EMC and NetApp, I have a virtual machine that emulates an entire Cisco Systems UCS blade server environment, I have multiple VMs to emulate a cluster of EMC Isilon storage nodes, and a Windows 7 VM for some picky applications. I also use a Linux VM for supporting some customer apps.

I have known people to copy and import configurations from physical storage arrays or server environments to an emulator running as a virtual machine. That way, they can troubleshoot a problem or reconfigure environments while offline in an airport or on a plane. When finished, they can simply copy the new configurations back to the physical environment. In the hurried life of a consultant, that is the kind of productivity and agility that can be a game changer.

The power of physical servers and the ever-expanding feature sets of bare metal and server-based hypervisors are continuing to open new doors and conquer new territories. However, the portability of virtual machines, paired with the power of desktop hypervisors, remain a very powerful tool that server virtualization admins often overlook. If you haven't already installed a desktop virtualization tool, find a good one. You may be surprised at just how many ways it provides value.

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