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Incorporating vCenter Orchestrator into your automation arsenal

Are you considering jumping into vCenter Orchestrator? Here's some expert advice on where to get started and how to use VMware's automation tool.

Workflow and process automation has gotten a lot of attention lately, both from vendors pushing new products and from IT pros looking to streamline tasks. These products are popular topics today for good reason: They improve efficiency and allow IT more time to be proactive, rather than spending time on repetitive tasks. There are few bigger proponents of IT automation than Cody Bunch, a private cloud/virtualization architect, VMware vExpert and author of the book Automating vSphere 5 with vCenter Orchestrator. In this Q&A, I talked with Bunch about best practices for integrating vCenter Orchestrator into your data center and about his "Orchestrate all the things" mantra.

VCenter Orchestrator has been around for several years, but it seems its receiving more attention lately than it has in the past. Why do you think that is?

Cody Bunch: Orchestration, automation and the like have been IT standbys for years. We are at an interesting point in IT, where automation is being pushed to the front and center as businesses are having to deal with more scale and more sprawl, all the while managing with the same or fewer IT resources.

Who should use VMware's vCenter Orchestrator (vCO), and why?

Bunch: Well, I might be a bit biased in this answer; however, like VMware PowerCLI (an extension to the popular PowerShell from Microsoft), I believe that vCO will be a necessary tool in every VMware admin's toolbox. 

Where will admins find the most use for Orchestrator?

Bunch: Again, I would suggest folks "Orchestrate ALL the things!" That said, that is not always practical. To find the quickest benefit, start paying attention to the multitude of small tasks you do each day and work on those one at a time. For example, if you currently have to update a ticket, delete a snapshot, and then update the ticket again, then it makes sense to orchestrate that. Need to adjust VM resources? Orchestrate that. Need to find orphaned VMs once a month? Orchestrate that. Tackling these simple tasks one at a time will let you build a library of workflows and save you time. Once you have that library and free time, you can then focus on tackling bigger tasks.

For someone interested in getting started with vCenter Orchestrator, where should they begin?

Bunch: At the beginning! Start by downloading the current version of the vCO appliance from VMware and experimenting with its built-in workflows. Additionally, as of vSphere 5.1, vCenter Orchestrator is now integrated into the vSphere web client, allowing you to use vCO workflows contextually within the vSphere client itself. 

How would you describe the difficulty of learning vCenter Orchestrator? I've heard it called a "steep learning curve."

Bunch: I've heard it called steep learning curve as well, and in prior revisions I would have agreed. However, as of the 5.1 release with integration into the vSphere Web client, the barrier to entry and casual workflow consumption has been significantly lowered. That said, if you want to go deeper or into large scale vCO deployments, you will want to engage VMware for some design assistance.

What area do Orchestrator users often have trouble with, and why?

Bunch: This varies depending on the user and their experience with automation. In prior versions, it was installing and configuring vCO. However, VMware now provides a pre-configured vApp, as well as a more tightly integrated configuration with vSphere 5.1. Others have found working with JavaScript and the object model exposed by vCO challenging. However, if you have worked with PowerCLI before, you should be able to find your way around. 

Do you have any best practices to follow for creating workflows?

Bunch: There are any number of these posted to the Web. A few of the easier to consume points include the following:

  • Name things in a self-documenting fashion. It will make them easier to find later.
  • VMware has invested a lot of time in the built-in workflows. Rather than start from scratch, find one that is close and adapt it to your process.
  • Save early, save often.


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Do you use VMware vCenter Orchestrator?
I do not use vCO but I am open to learning as I build my PowerCLI skillset.