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Microsoft challenges VMware vCloud Director with SCVMM 2012

Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 could take on VMware's vCloud Director and its private cloud computing management vision.

As virtualization management software continues to mature, a rising tide may lift all boats.

First came VMware's vCloud Director. This "manager of all managers" suite aims to enable the move toward private cloud computing with a centralized management layer. Now, Microsoft is poised to compete in the private cloud computing market as well with the latest version of System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM).

Due out in the second half of 2011, SCVMM 2012 is still in the early stages of beta testing. But its additions may bring greater feature parity between VMware's vCloud Director and Virtual Machine Manager-- as well as support for Citrix Systems' XenServer. And users see promise in it. New features demonstrated at the company's recent TechEd conference in Berlin include new administrative roles and workflows for self-service portals, which are meant to support Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and new support for automated, wizard-driven provisioning of server, network and storage hardware for virtual machine deployments through Virtual Machine Manager.

In addition, Microsoft is introducing a feature it calls Dynamic Optimization and Power Management, akin to VMware Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and Distributed Power Management (DPM) for load balancing virtual machines across a cluster in response to performance or power requirements.

Beefed-up role-based IaaS

Currently, Microsoft's SCVMM 2008 is limited to lifecycle management operations -- creating, starting, stopping, reallocating, decommissioning and deleting -- for Hyper-V and vSphere 4.0 virtual machines. SCVMM 2012 will add support for managing Citrix XenServer and vSphere 4.1 virtual machines. It will also add roles beyond the VMM Administrator to support IaaS.

According to the TechEd Europe session "System Center Virtual Machine Manager vNext: Service Lifecycle Management for the Private Cloud," the new roles, which will be administered through Microsoft's Active Directory, include a delegate VMM administrator; a cloud manager, a read-only admin role; and a self-service user, which will be able to see and act on different levels of cloud resources, based on their role.

Another alternative with SCVMM 2012 will be for the end user to create and share service or virtual machine templates that can be configured, limited or revoked by higher-level administrators. Microsoft already has a similar self-service portal tool on the market, SCVMM Self Service Portal (SSP) 2.0, but users say they hope the new self-service features will be easier to work with. "SSP right now is a little clunky," without finer-grained roles and restrictions for different levels of admins and users, said Robert McShinsky, senior systems engineer at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. With SCVMM 2012, "we could use the multi-tiered console and different user roles to offer a full feature set but ratchet down what different people can do."

Aidan Finn, an infrastructure team lead at System Dynamics, a Microsoft consulting company based in Ireland, said it's unclear to him whether SSP 2.0 will be folded into SCVMM 2012. "My bet would be SCVMM 2012 will be self-contained," he said. "If people want to build a private cloud right now, they can use SSP 2.0, but next year there will be a real evolution with VMM." Microsoft did not respond to requests for clarification by press time.

Physical infrastructure provisioning for virtualization

According to the TechEd SCVMM vNext session "Fabric Management for the Private Cloud," SCVMM 2012 will add two more roles at the delegate administrator level: network administrator and storage administrator. Thus, the new version of the software will be the first version of VMM to provision bare-metal server hardware, host clusters, load balancers, and network and storage resources for virtual machines.

With SCVMM 2012, according to the session, users will be able to automate OS and application deployment as virtual machines are created. Users can also use the SCVMM graphical user interface to create physical host clusters and connect their shared storage volumes.

"[Automated] clustering is huge," said Seth Mitchell, infrastructure team manager for Slumberland Inc., which runs about 120 Hyper-V guests and uses SCVMM"heavily." "It's one of the areas we spend more time on than we'd like to."

[Automated] clustering is huge.
Seth Mitchellinfrastructure team manager for Slumberland Inc.

Storage provisioning will include the automated creation of shared storage volumes and their attachment to host clusters, according to a panel of Microsoft officials who spoke at the TechEd session. The presentation specified that SCVMM 2012 will connect with storage arrays through the SMI-S standard, which is an inconsistently applied standard in the storage world.

"It's an interesting concept, but it will be interesting to see how [the storage integration] plays out in practice. There are fairly granular things we do with storage on our clusters, and if we can't do them, that part might not get used," Mitchell said. Slumberland uses storage arrays from Compellent Technologies Inc., which have automated tiered-storage features Mitchell said he doubts can be integrated using SMI-S alone, but Mitchell hopes Compellent will instead offer integration based on PowerShell scripts.

On the networking front, SCVMM 2012 will be able to attach virtual machines to load balancers from F5 Networks and Citrix Systems Inc. automatically, complete with customizable virtual IP templates that instruct the load balancer which protocols and load-balancing methods should be used, as well as settings for persistence and health monitoring.

IP addresses, MAC addresses and virtual IP (VIP) addresses will be pooled and provisioned by network administrators through a new SCVMM 2012 feature called Logical Networks, which allows network administrators to create and monitor a network connectivity service catalog. With address pooling, IP and VIP addresses are "checked out" and matched with static MAC addresses when virtual machines are created, and checked back in when virtual machines are deleted or decommissioned.

It's good to see Microsoft beefing up these capabilities, McShinsky said, but it's unclear yet how SCVMM will fit in with existing provisioning tools his shop has running, such as Symantec's Altiris. "It's another thing to coordinate within the data center," he said.

Upping the ante with VMware

Of all the new enhancements to SCVMM 2012, McShinsky said he's most interested in Dynamic Optimization and Power Management, which will consist of a series of PowerShell extensions to perform distributed resource scheduling using live migrations or to migrate virtual machines in groups for power management efficiency.

This isn't a net-new capability for SCVMM, but it's much improved, McShinsky said. "Previously, Operations Manager had a connector that you could use to move things around in some ways, but it involved a separate infrastructure with Operations Manager, which is a bear in itself," he said. "Having that [utility] baked into the tool it's meant for is a real step in the right direction."

A previous Microsoft event saw the announcement of elastic migration features to come for Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, which closely match the model VMware calls a “hybrid cloud.”

Mitchell said the new release could "help people like me try to position Hyper-V as real for business use. I'm happy to see Microsoft get into this and become more competitive."

For now, however, VMware's vCloud Director is already shipping, while SCVMM 2012 remains theoretical until next year. And regardless of which IaaS tools they use, users face other challenges in building private clouds.

"The [Microsoft] tools are definitely maturing, and tying in to a lot of what VMware has talked about in terms of managing the whole data center and clouds," said McShinsky, "But we'll have to see where it ends up."

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

Editor’s note: Previous versions of this story quoted Aidan Finn of System Dynamics as comparing VMware’s vCloud director with Microsoft’s SCVMM 2012. In actuality, Finn made a comparison between SCVMM 2012 and Microsoft’s Azure VM Role.

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