The smart shopper's guide to virtualization and cloud management tools

David Davis

Having a virtualization management strategy is very important to a successful move to the cloud. As the role of software grows in the modern data center and companies consider the software-defined model, it's necessary for different types of software to communicate and integrate at some level. Let's find out how that integration works among virtualization and cloud management tools, how the tools are licensed, and how to make the best choice for your virtual infrastructure.

Cloud management integration

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are becoming critical pieces of the software-defined data center. It's not enough to just have an API -- you need a strong API with great visibility and capability. For example, in a VMware vCloud environment, simply having access to the vCloud API doesn't give you everything you need to back up and recover virtual machines (VMs). While it is still a useful API -- even at version 1.5 -- you can't assume that just because you have an API at the highest level, it's the best choice for your environment.

Most virtualization and cloud management tools interact with a virtual infrastructure and a cloud though the API provided by the hypervisor vendor. But other APIs exist as well. For instance, management tools that show insight into the storage environment may need to use SMI-S (Storage Management Initiative Specification) to do it. Or management tools that want to gather data about the virtual or physical network may want to use Cisco NetFlow to do it.

More and more virtualization management tools are providing support for additional APIs. This is especially true for cloud-related APIs, such as the vCloud API, Azure APIs and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud APIs.

Rarely do third-party management tools communicate with one another. Instead, there are typically "managers of managers" that move management up to a higher level. For example, Cloupia, VMware vCloud Automation Center, Microsoft System Center and Embotics vCommander take management to a higher level, which solves some problems but creates others.

Licensing and cost considerations

Every business is concerned with maintaining a positive return on IT investment, so before proposing or making a new purchase, understand the various factors that can affect the cost of IT tools. Here are a few:

  1. Bundling. When you purchase a hypervisor and centralized management tool, major vendors may try to bundle additional management tools into their enterprise license agreement (ELA). Thus, it's possible to receive additional virtualization/cloud management tools at a reduced cost when negotiating an ELA. Tools that are free or very inexpensive are often used instead of stronger alternatives simply because of their low associated cost.
  2. Licensing method. The method that is used to calculate the license cost of a tool is often a deciding factor. Some tools are licensed "per VM," while others are licensed "per CPU socket." For example, if you have two servers with two 16-core CPUs each, running hundreds of VMs, the per-socket cost may be dramatically lower than the per-VM cost.
  3. Packaging. Some vendors include so much in one package that their packaging alone may sway your buying decision toward their product. For example, Microsoft System Center is sold in a single SKU for the entire System Center Suite. Thus, if you have already purchased System Center Virtual Machine Manager, you might as well use the other System Center components (if they fill your needs) because they were already included in the package you bought.
  4. Published vs. negotiated price. Keep in mind that the negotiated price of a product in an ELA should always be less than the published price of a product. Unless you are buying just a single copy, negotiating license agreements for software products with vendors can save a lot of money.

Best practices for selecting tools

At the end of the day, you simply want to ensure that the tools you run in the data center are as efficient and useful as possible within your company's budget. With that in mind, here are three tips for selecting the best tool:

  1. Talk to other users. Aside from testing a tool yourself, talking to other customers who have used it is the best way to learn about its value. Was the tool hard to deploy? How much did the customer pay? How helpful is the tool on a daily basis? Would the customer purchase it again or shop around? For impartial advice, it's a good idea to find these customers through user group meetings or over the Web -- rather than use the customer references recommended by the vendor.
  2. Test tools for yourself. Never buy anything without creating your own proof of concept. If you can't understand how to install the tool yourself or how it works without professional services, then look for other tools. This firsthand experience is invaluable in selecting the right product. If you have a poor initial experience in installing a tool and learning about it through the company's website and documentation, it's unlikely your experience will improve over time.
  3. Ask the company to show you an ROI. If a software company can't show you the financial return on investment its tool offers, you will likely have a tough time coming up with one yourself when trying to sell that tool to your company's management.

Finally, take your time in making a choice. It's tempting to make a snap decision and buy a tool from the vendor that dazzles you with promises. These tools, however, will be with you and your IT staff for years, so take care to make an informed, proven selection.

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