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Does virtualization need specialized management tools?

Virtualization-specific management software that governs virtual machines throughout their lifecycle may fill a void unsolved by traditional systems management tools.

If server virtualization has a dark side, it may be virtual machine (VM) sprawl. The principal problem created by sprawl is that IT administrators can't certify that all deployed VMs meet an organization's policies and procedures just as they would certify physical servers. "Deploying VMs at many organizations circumvents the standard processes for deploying physical servers," noted contributor Anil Desai.

For more on sprawl in virtual environments:
Virtualization users beware: Sprawl is real
How to avoid virtual server sprawl: Virtualization planning tools, blade server considerations

Solving -- or preventing -- the problem of VM sprawl may necessitate automated management tools for such activities as inventory, authorization and configuration management. But while such tools have been a mainstay in managing and taking inventory of physical servers, Desai said, relatively few organizations use systems management tools effectively to control virtual environments. Indeed, in a mid-2007 Gartner Inc. survey, 37% of respondents cited sprawl as the greatest challenge in managing virtual environments.

"Many IT departments are operating in a reactive mode," he said. "They wake up one morning and discover that they don't know how the 5,000 VMs they have are configured." The result, he said, is that they jeopardize their environments by inviting compliance, security and resource management risks.

Virtualization-specific tools to the rescue?
Vendors have responded to the management conundrum posed by server virtualization by offering automated tools designed expressly for virtualized environments. One such vendor is Embotics Corp. of Ottawa, Ont. Embotics' tool V-Commander is designed to address a central problem: how to control a virtual machine throughout various life stages.

[It departments] wake up one morning and discover that they don't know how the 5,000 VMs they have are configured.
Anil Desai,

"There is a challenge when it comes to managing VMs," said David Lynch, vice president of marketing for Embotics, "because they can have lifecycles that range from minutes to years." According to Lynch, V-Commander includes three key technologies to address this challenge: a repository for standardizing configurations; identification tagging to recognize specific VMs and their associated policies; and a policy engine to manage and control VMs.

With V-Commander, IT departments can create and enforce policy-based controls governing the deployment and administration of VMs throughout their life span. And when VMs don't conform to pre-established processes, the tool alerts IT administrators.

Because V-Commander is focused exclusively on the management requirements of a virtualized environment, data center administrators can get pinpoint information on virtual machines. "Any ... management tool in a virtual environment must be able to identify and track virtual machines wherever they are and identify which machines were cloned from others," Lynch said. To this end, Embotics' software includes the ability to attach a unique "fingerprint" much like a radio frequency identification, or RFID, tag to authorize VMs. This fingerprint is used to identify and monitor VMs, independent of traditional identification methods such as IP addresses. This method of identifying servers, said Lynch, allows data centers "to track and trace VMs as they move around the environment from physical host to physical host, even if they are renamed."

Desai concurred that Embotics' focus on virtualized environments can benefit many IT shops. Heterogeneous operating systems, ad hoc provisioning and disparate deployment locations that are hallmarks of virtualized environments require management tools that can track, administer and control machines that aren't stacked neatly on a rack in a data center down the hall.

Daniel Kusnetzky, a principal with Osprey, Fla.-based IT research firm Kusnetzky Group LLC, agrees that virtual environments require specialized systems management tools like those offered by Embotics. "There are a lot of opportunities for people to download, test and put into production VMs that IT administrators don't know about," Kusnetzky said. In addition, employees can make copies of VMs and easily put them on a thumb drive to take home. While traditional systems management tools can track VMs, Kusnetsky says that Embotics and Fortisphere Inc. stand out in their ability to allow data centers to establish and enforce parameters related to a VM's lifecycle, user and location, whether a VM is online or off. "Without some form of management, [virtualized environments] can get out of hand," Kusnetzky noted.

As Kusnetzky sees it, Embotics' approach -- which encompasses a lifecycle management tack to controlling VM sprawl -- is a good one because of the dynamic nature of virtualization.

In addition to Embotics, Kusnetzky cites newcomer Fortisphere Inc., a privately held company in Glenwood, Md. Fortisphere's products also provide lifecycle management capabilities for virtualized environments and were built from the ground up with virtualized environments in mind. "Both vendors have a good concept of the control points needed," Kusnetzky said. "Inventory, policies and the ability to retire VMs when they are no longer needed are critical when managing virtualized environments."

In September 2007, Embotics began beta-testing V-Commander, and in December, it announced general availability. Fortisphere's Virtual Insight will ship this month, and its Virtual Foresight policy management tool will be available later this spring.

As Desai sees it, such specialized virtualization management tools are particularly well suited for small and medium-sized IT shops because they can be deployed quickly and are relatively easy to use. Large data centers or shops that have invested in enterprise management software might fare better with add-on support for virtualization from their current vendor, Desai said.

Gartner predicts that third-party independent software vendors in the vein of Embotics and Fortisphere present the best options for heterogeneous support. Over the next year or so, Kusnetzky expects the market for such tools to grow rapidly as companies try to address the management challenges endemic to virtualization.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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