Virtualization market eyes Microsoft SCVMM 2012 beta

Microsoft says it will offer virtualization users a more application-oriented cloud portal than VMware’s vCloud Director; experts say VMware has ‘home-court advantage’ but should watch its back.

Microsoft made System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 available for public beta testing last week, and experts say it will put VMware to the competitive test.

Due out in the second half of 2011,  System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2012 may bring greater feature parity with VMware's vCloud Director. New features include new administrative roles and workflows for self-service portals, which are meant to support Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), plus automated, wizard-driven provisioning of virtual machine (VM), network and storage hardware through Virtual Machine Manager.

All about apps
Microsoft also took pains to position SCVMM 2012 against VMware’s vCloud Director. According to David Greschler, director of integrated virtualization strategy for Microsoft, SCVMM 2012 is more focused on the delivery of applications as a service than IaaS within enterprise environments.

“While the VMware method is still aggregating things in an attempt to manage applications, it’s still fundamentally at an infrastructure level,” Greschler said. “What we’re doing in System Center is really monitoring it from an application level, and then applying changes or making modifications to resources as they apply to the applications. So rather than changing or affecting resources at the infrastructure level and then seeing what the result at the app level is, we’re managing it directly from the app level.”

Imagine, for example, needing to spin up more Web servers to bolster an under-performing website. “With [SCVMM], we’re actively monitoring how that application is working, and we can actually pre-build not just orchestration but policies on what to do when this event occurs, so when the website becomes overloaded, not only do we know, but we can tell the orchestration engine to go ahead and dynamically add the correct amount of Web servers, and then verify that the problem is solved,” Greschler said.

Some of this can be done today with the existing System Center 2008 suite, but the 2012 version will also be able to aggregate VMs, networking, storage, load balancers and application configuration templates into business services.

SCVMM 2012 earning beta tester’s trust
One Hyper-V user currently beta testing SCVMM 2012 says he’s excited about the new features, but that it will take time before the product makes it into production.

Rob McShinsky, senior systems engineer for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., has SCVMM 2012 running in a small test environment and hasn’t gotten the chance to put the product through all its paces, but hopes it will bring better visibility into the infrastructure. 

“A lot of the provisioning and components that allow us to monitor certain workloads that may be overtaxing a host are kind of lacking,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of it manually …dynamic optimization built into Virtual Machine Manager would really [simplify] that.”

McShinsky said the ability to deploy application services as a template of multiple VMs is also appealing. “I think we’ve done a great job with templating and getting things out quickly here, but it seems we always hit a new standard of expectation.”

However, none of this will make it into McShinsky’s production environment overnight. In theory, “Microsoft should know where the best fit for a particular VM would be on the fly,” he said, but “with any technology, building the trust in it is where it has to prove itself.”

Management, virtualization’s new front
Between now and when SCVMM 2012 sees deployment, VMware has an advantage, having released vCloud Director well ahead of SCVMM 2012, industry watchers say. But VMware users would be wise to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror, especially because Microsoft is claiming SCVMM 2012 will be able to manage vSphere hosts as well.

“I think the tricky part for Microsoft, at least in the [virtualization] space, is that VMware has home-court advantage,” said Gartner analyst Chris Wolf. “To counter that, what Microsoft has to do is build solutions that far exceed the good-enough part that VMware can do with vCloud Director [currently] and give customers compelling reasons to look at SCVMM, not only for Hyper-V, but also for non-Microsoft workloads.”

On the surface, Wolf said, SCVMM 2012 looks promising along these lines. “One thing Microsoft has done well is provide a tool set that can manage the entire application lifecycle, and that’s something that VMware still has to work on.”

VMware does have some application monitoring offerings, such as AppSpeed and Hyperic, which have at least recently been more tightly integrated into vCenter. VMware has also recently begun offering vCenter Operations, a tool meant to aggregate performance-monitoring and capacity-planning information about virtual environments and perform automated root-cause analysis.  

But these tools are also still developing, in Wolf’s view. “To me AppSpeed and Hyperic are more check boxes,” he said. “From a high-level view, you can say VMware has application management too, but when you look into it, I don’t have the same awareness of application state, and ability to look at how an application is performing like I do with System Center.”

On the virtualization management front, Wolf said he sees the competitive landscape as a nearly neck-and-neck race. “You have Microsoft and other management vendors that are very good in terms of managing the application, and they’re trying to race from the top down, into the very lower-level parts of the infrastructure,” he said. 

“On the other side, VMware has that lower-level infrastructure nailed from the management side, and they’re moving up into the application stack. Obviously there’s going to be some place where they meet in the middle. But at the end of the day you have to ask what’s going to be more difficult -- is it adding that application intelligence or is it adding the infrastructure intelligence?”

According to one U.K. Microsoft and VMware channel partner, vCloud Director does seem more geared toward IaaS. When it comes to things like federated access control, for example, “you need third-party products like newScale on top of it,” said Chris Dearden, who asked that his company not be named. “Microsoft looks to have it more out of the box [with SCVMM 2012].”

Though, as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Dearden said. “VMware can’t afford to stagnate, by any means at all.”

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at [email protected].

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