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The rush to fill virtualization management gaps

Significant gaps remain in virtualization management tools needed to optimize those solutions, industry analysts and enterprise users say. But help may be on the way.

The frenzy to deliver server virtualization solutions has produced remarkable successes, but significant gaps remain in management tools needed to optimize those solutions, industry analysts and enterprise users say.

Key vendors like IBM, Microsoft, VMware Inc., XenSource Inc., Virtual Iron Software Inc. and others are hard at work on management tools, and several are on the verge of releasing beta versions. But fully formed server virtualization management tools will be unavailable until probably sometime next year.

Specific gaps identified by analysts and users include tools to facilitate patch management, x86-based server aggregation, backup and restore management, and workload balancing optimized for virtual servers. With the gaps identified, forthcoming management tools have been scheduled for release.

"There are many gaps, but aggregation is by far the number one thing," says Jonathan Eunice, founder of Nashua, N.H.-based market research firm Illuminata Inc. "It's a matter of moving from managing one virtual machine at a time to a whole group."

That challenge quickly becomes obvious when patching operating systems or signing software licenses, according to Eunice. In such cases, he points out that each virtual server will need to be patched even if they all reside on one physical machine.

According to Nick Couchman, a systems integrator with SEAKR Engineering Inc., a Centennial, Colo.-based firm that develops aerospace data storage solutions, the dearth of backup-and-restore management tools is another major gap. Although multiple methods exist for backing up virtual servers -- for example, as disk files or as physical machines -- each has significant limitations, particularly in retrieving files.

Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst for Ideas International Inc. of Rye Brook, N.Y., says virtualization management tools that had been created for clusters for physical servers have not yet been optimized for virtual servers.

"Some extensions have been written, but virtual machines behave differently," he says. "It's a question of scale. You potentially have an infinite number of resources. With virtualization, with a push of a button you can start up a thousand virtual machines."

Some concerns may become moot as developers release virtualization tools that take advantage of new hardware virtualization capabilities developed by AMD (AMD-V) and Intel (Intel Virtualization Technology). One new tool is Microsoft's beta release of hypervisor-based Windows Server virtualization, slated for later this year. Microsoft's planned acquisition of Softricity is expected to result in additional missing virtualization management tools. One of Softricity's key attractions is its ability to separate applications from the underlying operating system, allowing patches to be delivered without creating application conflicts or requiring IT managers to do regression testing.

Microsoft also promises to add management functionality to existing tools, such as Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Systems Management Server. The company expects to release the final version of Virtual Server 2005 R2 service pack 1 in early 2007. Microsoft says the release will support the virtualization efforts by AMD and Intel and should bring better interoperability and stronger isolation, which will prevent a corrupted virtual machine from affecting others on the same system. Later this year, Microsoft plans to release a beta version of System Center Virtual Machine Manager, a centralized, enterprise management solution for the virtualized data center.

For their parts, Virtual Iron and XenSource are developing hypervisors that can virtualize all operating systems and can leverage virtualization hardware, like Intel Virtualization Technology and AMD-V.

Virtual Iron is set to launch a beta version of Virtual Iron 3 for Xen/Enterprise Edition. The edition contains Virtualization Services and Virtualization Manager and includes capabilities for high availability, disaster recovery, workload management and policy-based automation. The Linux beta is due in July, and the Windows version is slated for September. XenSource's XenEnterprise 3.0, a virtual server platform, is due in the third quarter of 2006.

In June, IBM is expected to complete its acquisition of Geneva-based Rembo Technology, a privately held software provisioning tools company. IBM plans to integrate Rembo technology into IBM Tivoli Provisioning Manager and IBM Director software. The idea, says IBM, is to enable IT administrators to install operating systems on thousands of virtualized and physical systems from a centralized dashboard in a few minutes.

Such scalability is key. "For example, in a financial application, where you have thousands of servers in a division, you might be talking about hundreds or even thousands of virtual images you need to patch," says Eunice.

Doug Zelinka, manager of IT infrastructure for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based systems reseller CDW Corp., is hoping for tools to help him automate changes in virtualized environments. CDW is a large user of VMware's Virtual Center, with 178 virtual machines on a dozen hosts.

"We have the ability to deploy new virtual machines quickly from templates, but we'd like to be able to have more automated failover to mirrored sites, or to be able to dynamically move workloads to different servers based on time of day," says Zelinka. "Right now, these are manual processes."

Kevin Ferguson is a freelance technology journalist based in Arlington, Mass.

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