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How to find the best server virtualization management software

Choosing the right server virtualization management software is critical to meeting your organization's current and future needs.

At the most basic level, server virtualization management refers to the ability to create, edit and delete VMs. All the major hypervisors include tools that can perform these basic functions. Microsoft Hyper-V includes a tool called Hyper-V Manager that administrators can use to create VMs and execute several other basic management tasks.

Although these basic tools have their place, production environments generally need capabilities that extend beyond what they have to offer. This is where server virtualization management software comes into play. These tools offer features and capabilities that aren't included in native management tools.

Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) is a paid management tool that is designed to take the place of Hyper-V Manager. It allows admins to see their entire virtualization infrastructure from a single console, rather than having to manage each Hyper-V host separately. SCVMM also introduces other capabilities not found in Hyper-V Manager, such as the ability to generate new VMs from templates.

There are numerous server virtualization management tools available on the market, and all these tools are designed to fill a specific niche. Some tools, such as SCVMM and VMware vCenter Server, are provided by hypervisor vendors and are designed to make it easier to manage VMs and virtualization hosts. Other tools are sold by third-party vendors and place a heavy emphasis on resource management, troubleshooting or supporting multiple hypervisors. Ultimately, an organization must determine which capabilities are most important given its own unique situation. Only then will the organization be able to select the virtualization management tool that best meet its needs.

Important virtualization management software features

When selecting virtualization management software, there are several important features to look for. Some of these features include:

  • The ability to create, modify and delete VMs
  • Support for multiple hypervisors
  • Support for cloud-based VM instances
  • The ability to modify running VMs
  • Reporting
  • Self-service VM provisioning
  • Chargebacks and other multi-tenancy features such as quotas
  • The ability to create VMs from templates
  • Troubleshooting capabilities
  • The ability to assist with physical resource management

Here are some additional factors to consider include.

Licensing

Licensing is an essential factor to consider when researching and purchasing server virtualization management software. These tools are licensed in many ways. It's important for the selected software to be licensed in a way that suits the company's financial and business needs. How big is the organization? How many VMs must be managed? These are questions to ask when evaluating the licensing options.

Smaller organizations with limited budgets would be better suited for software that is available as an open source version or as a basic, standard edition. VMware offers a standard edition license called VMware Server Essentials, which is designed for very small virtualized environments. Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager also has two licensing options. The Standard Edition option is for nonvirtualized or lightly virtualized environments. Another option for limited budgets is Citrix XenCenter, which is licensed under the BSD 2-Clause license. This software is open source and freely available to download. These options keep licensing costs low and make sense for organizations that aren't too highly virtualized.

If the organization possesses a larger budget and manages a highly virtualized environment, there are more fitting licensing options. VMware offers the vCenter Server Standard license, which is geared toward larger organizations. It provides the same capabilities as the vCenter Server Foundation license but enables the management of up to 2,000 vSphere ESXi hosts. The second licensing option Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager offers is Datacenter Edition, which is for heavily virtualized environments. Foglight for Virtualization licenses are based on a cartridge system, although a free version is available. SolarWinds Virtualization Manager licenses are based on the number of sockets.

Cross-platform functionality

Cross-platform support isn't an essential feature for every organization, but organizations running hypervisors from multiple vendors should consider it. In those situations, cross-platform support might make it possible to manage multiple virtualization platforms through a single console.

None of the cross-platform products are as good at providing support as the native products are. The best management tool for Hyper-V is the one provided by Microsoft: SCVMM. Similarly, the best server virtualization management software for managing VMware ESXi is vCenter Server.

There are several tools that provide relatively good cross-platform support. Turbonomic (formerly VMTurbo), Foglight for Virtualization, Snow Commander (formerly Embotics Commander), SolarWinds Virtualization Manager and Splunk Enterprise Monitoring all provide support for the most widely used hypervisors.

There might be differences in how each hypervisor is supported, because the hypervisors aren't identical to one another. A perfect example of this is Microsoft SCVMM. This tool provides comprehensive support for managing Hyper-V and limited support for managing VMware ESXi. Although the tool can manage VMware environments, admins will likely find themselves having to occasionally use native tools to compensate for the fact that SCVMM doesn't provide comprehensive management capabilities for competing hypervisors.

Support for templates

Although there are many different types of templates in virtualized environments, templates are generally used as tools for automating VM deployments. In basic server virtualization environments, templates can be used to not only reduce the administrative burden associated with VM deployment, but also to ensure VMs are configured in accordance with the organization's policies.

Templates are also an essential feature for private or hybrid cloud environments that enable self-service VM provisioning. The provisioning process is almost always based on the use of preconfigured VM templates.

Most server virtualization management software supports the use of templates for VM creation. These tools include VMware vCenter, Citrix XenCenter, Turbonomic and Microsoft SCVMM. Other tools provide indirect template support.

Ability to make changes to running VMs

VMs are highly dynamic. Native hypervisor management tools, such as VMware vSphere Web Client or Microsoft Hyper-V Manager, enable certain aspects of VMs to be modified while they're running. The modifications allowed vary depending on the hypervisor but commonly include changing a VM's memory allocation, adding a virtual hard disk or moving the VM to a different server. Third-party management tools should ideally expose such functionality as to prevent the admin from having to resort to using native management tools to perform day-to-day maintenance of VMs.

Unsurprisingly, the hypervisor vendor's own tools tend to provide the greatest number of options for making changes to running VMs. Such tools include VMware vCenter, Microsoft SCVMM and Citrix XenCenter. Most of the third-party management tools aren't designed for granular, manual VM management. There are some exceptions. SolarWinds Virtualization Manager provides very basic VM management capabilities.

Ability to manage storage

The vast majority of VMs depend on the use of physical storage for storing configuration files and virtual hard disk files. At the very least, server virtualization management software must be able to interact with the physical storage to the extent necessary to create, modify or relocate virtual hard disk files. Some products expose additional storage management capabilities.

Organizations that want basic storage monitoring capabilities but don't need true storage management might consider Snow Commander, Splunk Enterprise or SolarWinds Virtualization Manager. These packages provide general purpose storage monitoring. Turbonomic also provides storage monitoring capabilities for organizations that are using NetApp, HPE, Pure Storage or Dell EMC storage.

When it comes to true storage management -- beyond the ability to create, modify and relocate virtual hard disks -- the thing to look for is native support for the organization's storage vendor's products. VMware vCenter and Citrix XenCenter both provide deep awareness of specific storage hardware, although vCenter depends on the use of plugins.

Ability to perform chargebacks

Chargebacks enable the IT department to bill internal customers for the resources they use. Given the fact that business models vary greatly, not every organization uses chargebacks. Chargeback use seems to be most common among organizations that have adopted private or hybrid clouds. Even so, any organization can use a chargeback feature, and there are some organizations that use chargeback capabilities as a mechanism for tracking costs, but without billing anyone. This is called a showback.

Server virtualization management tools that have native chargeback capabilities include Snow Commander, SolarWinds Virtualization Manager, Foglight -- via Foglight Chargeback -- and Splunk Enterprise.

Other vendors expose chargeback capabilities using supplemental software. Microsoft enables chargebacks through System Center Operations Manager, while VMware exposes chargebacks through vRealize Business Enterprise. Citrix provides chargeback capabilities through XenServer Workload Balancing.

Self-service provisioning

Self-service provisioning capabilities are only used in private or hybrid cloud environments, in which authorized users have been granted the ability to create VMs on demand. Self-service provisioning tends to be most appropriate for large, heavily virtualized organizations. One reason for this is that private and hybrid cloud environments tend to be complex and difficult to implement. Self-service environments also tend to increase the help desk's workload.

Because self-service provisioning capabilities are a niche feature, most server virtualization management tools don't include self-service provisioning support. The notable exception is Snow Commander, which provides self-service provisioning capabilities and supporting features, such as quotas and service catalogs.

Some vendors enable self-service provisioning using external software. VMware exposes self-service provisioning capabilities through vRealize Automation. Microsoft SCVMM can be configured to act as a self-service environment but lacks the necessary client component. Those who need self service capabilities must deploy Microsoft Self Service portal for Service Manager.

Automation

Automation can serve many purposes in a virtualization environment, from VM deployments to resource reclamation.

Although most server virtualization management software provides some automation capabilities, these capabilities vary widely from one product to the next. Turbonomic uses automation to monitor VM workloads in real time and realigns resources on an as-needed basis to maintain performance. Another example is Foglight for Virtualization, which can use automation to remediate issues that it detects.

Not all server virtualization management software includes native automation capabilities. Hypervisor vendors tend to expose automation capabilities through separate products. VMware exposes its automation capabilities through vRealize Orchestrator. Similarly, Microsoft's primary software for VM automation is System Center Orchestrator. Citrix XenServer does, however, provide native automation capabilities.

Reporting

A reporting engine should be another requirement for server virtualization management software. A reporting engine can help admins track hardware resource consumption, VM performance and license usage. Furthermore, reporting data can be useful for capacity planning.

Most server virtualization management tools have rich reporting capabilities. Some tools focus on one aspect of the virtualization platform, while others are more general. Foglight for Virtualization focuses heavily on service-level agreement compliance and identifying resources that aren't being used efficiently.

There are vendors who require the purchase of an add-on product for reporting capabilities. VMware uses vRealize Log Insight as its primary reporting tool, while most of Microsoft's reporting capabilities exist within System Center Operations Manager.

Top server virtualization tools

  • Citrix XenCenter
  • Foglight for Virtualization
  • Microsoft SCVMM
  • Snow Commander
  • SolarWinds Virtualization Manager
  • Splunk Enterprise
  • Turbonomic
  • VMware vCenter Server

Questions to ask before software adoption

  • Besides basic VM management capabilities, what core capabilities does the organization need?
  • Do I need software with the ability to provision and manage physical resources, or do I only need virtual server management capabilities?
  • What is my budget for virtual server management software?
  • What types of environments do I need to support: multi-hypervisor, multi-cloud, hybrid cloud, private cloud?
  • Will the virtualization management platform support cloud-based VMs?
  • What types of reporting capabilities do I need?
  • Are automations important to my organization?
  • Will the VM management platform do anything to assist with troubleshooting?
  • Do I need self-service or chargeback capabilities?
  • Does the management software include native support for my hardware, such as supporting a specific storage array type?

No server virtualization management software is perfect for every situation. All of them have some degree of dependency on other software and are, therefore, not fully comprehensive on their own.

Organizations running a single hypervisor should purchase the management tool recommended by their hypervisor vendor. Other products can greatly improve monitoring capabilities but should be regarded as augmentations to a native hypervisor management tool, rather than complete replacements. There are times when you'll likely need a product, such as vCenter or SCVMM, to make low-level configuration changes to your virtualization infrastructure.

The best product for the organization is determined by the existing virtualization infrastructure, how you expect that infrastructure to evolve in the future and perceived management needs.

If the organization is running a multi-hypervisor environment and needs a tool for day-to-day VM management, as opposed to monitoring, then you'll most likely need a combination of tools. Microsoft SCVMM is the best tool for cross-platform VM management. However, if you plan to use it to manage a VMware environment, you'll also need to deploy vCenter Server. SCVMM can only manage VMware servers that are connected to vCenter. There are some low-level management tasks that must be completed using a native management tool, vCenter directly, rather than using the SCVMM console. The current version of SCVMM doesn't officially support versions of VMware beyond 5.1, but support for VMware 5.5 and 6.x are rumored to be supported in the next SCVMM release. If you're looking for a third-party, cross-platform management tool, SolarWinds is a good option.

If your goal is to monitor a multi-hypervisor environment, as opposed to manage it, then the best software is a toss-up between Snow Commander and Dell Foglight for Virtualization. Both products support a wide variety of hypervisors and are good at monitoring the virtualization infrastructure.

For organizations that wish to allow self-service provisioning of VMs, the best tool is Snow Commander. SCVMM is a good option, too, but requires Windows Azure Pack. Azure Pack is free, but it can be a lot of work to deploy and properly configure.

Finally, organizations that want to implement VM automation should consider Snow Commander. Snow Commander allows routine tasks, such as joining a VM to a domain, to be performed automatically. It's also possible to automate both the provisioning and the deprovisioning of VMs, which helps reduce VM sprawl and related challenges.

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