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Lab management streamlines asset allocation, saves costs

Traditionally, developing and testing applications is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process that requires IT departments to create testing environments that mirror production environments. Once a testing environment is created—with production operating systems, network configurations and the like all painstakingly recreated—the test-and-development crew may need the machines only for a few days before the environment is scrapped. For IT operations, creating and tearing down test environments is just one more activity in already overtaxed schedules.

Virtualization technology – with its inherent ability to quickly create virtual machines – has been widely embraced for test-and-dev applications. Now virtual lab management software further helps IT administrators by automating and consolidating the processes required to establish lab IT infrastructure. Many virtualization proponents view these tools as the perfect antidote to the legwork required to set up and break down lab environments.

Easing IT’s burden
Providers VMlogix, Surgient and, naturally, VMware offer virtual lab management products designed to make the build-and-tear-down process required for test and development faster and easier. (VMware Lab Manager works only with VMware environments.) The software typically enables the configuration of multiple VMs in multiple environments and integrates with third-party quality assurance and testing tools, such as HP Quality Center, Borland SilkTest, IBM Rational Build Forge and IBM Rational ClearQuest, among others. For test-and-dev folks, the payoff of such tools is faster testing and development. For IT operations, the value of such tools has more to do with labor savings and cost overhead.

For about two years, Brian Boresi, manager of client engineering at Sisters of Mercy Health System, has used Surgient’s Virtual QA/Test Lab Management System (QTMS) test applications as part of an enterprise desktop refresh.

Before getting the tool, a subject matter expert would spend more than a week in a central lab testing a new system against core applications. Today, that process has been whittled down to about four hours. “An SME creates testing scripts based on a onetime visit to the lab,” Boresi said. “The virtual test tool automates the scripts which we run in a test environment on a VMware ESX server.”

Theresa Lanowitz, president of voke Inc. , an IT research firm, has studied the benefits of virtual lab management technology and said that such results as Boresi’s are fairly typical. With virtualized lab environments, Lanowitz said, “developers want to test in an environment as close to production as possible, and operations don’t have to set up a lab.”

Self-service provisioning
At Vignette Corp. , a software company, virtual lab technology enables developers and QA testers to provision their own test environments. The company uses LabManager from VMLogix, which includes self-service automation technology, allowing end users to create their own VMs without the intervention of IT operations. “Users now log in and self-service images for themselves,” said Rob O’Neill, Vignette’s senior manager of IT. “With automated workflows, users can check out machines, run them for testing, and then tear them down once they are finished.” The turnaround time for creating test environments ranges from about five minutes to 20 minutes, O’Neill said.

While VM sprawl has become an issue in production environments, it’s also a challenge for test and development. Bart Burkhard, manager of engineering for Overwatch Systems, a provider of software for military command and business information analysis, is currently piloting VMLogix’s LabManager in part to contain VM sprawl. “We have a number of disconnected labs and data centers used by developers and testers,” Burkhard said. “The disconnected labs and parallel projects make physical resource allocation and discovery difficult for us.”

Saving money, improving access to resources
For this reason, Overwatch opted to move test and dev from a physical to a virtual environment, Burkhard said, but the company was wary of the sprawl that could result. With LabManager, Overwatch now maintains a single repository of VMs that track how they are utilized by the company’s test and development staff. “As leases come up for various desktops in the labs, we’ll incrementally replace physical machines with VMs.”

From Burkhard’s perspective, the benefits of using a lab management environment are twofold. From a business perspective, it helps save money on items such as leases, power and cooling because it facilitates the move from physical to virtual environments. For end users, the use of lab management software is getting them access to resources faster. “The time we spent to allocate a machine into a lab with any disk size and memory based on the VMs we have is down from three days to one hour,” Burkhard said.

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