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Server virtualization was promised to be a technology that would drive down costs through hardware consolidation. The idea was that rather than running each workload on a separate physical server, unused hardware capacity could be used to run several workloads simultaneously in the form of VMs.
Although server virtualization management ultimately lived up to the hype, it was not without its side effects. One such side effect was VM sprawl. It became so easy to create new VMs that organizations suddenly found themselves tasked with managing an overwhelming number of VMs and host servers. This problem led to the creation of virtualization systems management tools.
Every hypervisor includes basic tools for managing the host server and the VMs that reside on it. Server virtualization management tools are generally designed to augment the capabilities found in basic management tools. In many cases, virtualization systems management tools are offered by the same vendors that create the hypervisor, but are sold separately.
This raises the question of why an organization might need an additional management tool when the hypervisor already includes its own management tool. The reason for this is that the management tools that come with hypervisors, such as VMware ESX and Microsoft Hyper-V, tend to take a server-centric view of the virtualization infrastructure. For example, the Hyper-V Manager -- the management tool that is included with Microsoft Hyper-V -- is designed to manage a single Hyper-V server. This approach is inefficient because production environments often utilize multiple host servers. In effect, the primary function of a virtualization systems management tool is to provide an organization wide view of the virtualization infrastructure.
Types of server virtualization management tools
Server virtualization management tools fall into two basic categories -- management and monitoring. Management tools can provide the ability to perform basic maintenance tasks, such as creating or removing VMs, provisioning storage or migrating a VM from one host server to another. In effect, the tool allows for comprehensive management of the entire server virtualization infrastructure.
Although virtualization systems management tools are first and foremost tools for managing VMs and host servers, the various vendors tend to offer a number of capabilities that go far beyond basic VM management. For example, some of the available tools allow VMs to be generated from templates and may also include various automation features. For instance, Microsoft's software makes it possible to consolidate VMs onto the fewest number of host servers at night, and then shut down the unused hosts as a way of saving power.
Other tools, such as Foglight from Dell, are oriented more toward monitoring and optimization. Such software is designed to monitor for possibly problematic conditions and then generate alerts so that an administrator can take corrective actions. In some cases, the software even offers single-click remediation. Some of the available products have the ability to detect hardware resources that are being wasted through oversized VMs, abandoned images and unused templates, and then reclaim those resources.
Occasionally, server virtualization management tools go far beyond basic virtualization management and provide features and capabilities that you might not expect from a management tool. Probably the best example of this is Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager, which has the ability to create and manage private clouds.
The most important criterion to look for when selecting a virtualization systems management tool is hypervisor compatibility. Most tools are designed to work with a specific hypervisor, although cross-platform tools are available. If you are considering one of the cross-platform tools, then it's important to make sure the tool fully meets your needs. Some cross-platform tools provide better support for some hypervisors than others.
There are many players in the virtualization systems management tools market. Three of these players are VMware, Microsoft and Citrix, each of which makes products that support their own hypervisors. Some of the third-party vendors, such as Dell, offer a cross-platform product with software available for VMware and Hyper-V. The virtualization systems management tools that currently have the greatest market share include:
- VMware vCenter
- Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager
- Citrix Systems XenCenter
- Dell Foglight
- 5nine Manager
- Embotics vCommander
- SolarWinds Virtualization Manager
- Splunk Virtualization Monitoring System
- VMTurbo Operations Manager
- WhatsUp Gold
Virtualization management tools are sold separately from the hypervisor. Each vendor has its own pricing structure for its own products. Pricing is typically based around factors such as the number of sockets present in the server that will run the software, the number of VMs being managed and the size of the organization.
While it's possible to manage virtualized environments without virtualization management tools, doing so quickly becomes impractical as the deployments size increases. Server virtualization management tools should be considered to be an essential investment for any organization that is highly virtualized.
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