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Shops seeking VMware alternatives face management problems

As the search for cost savings leads more VMware shops to Hyper-V and XenServer, IT pros learn that multi-hypervisor management is a tough nut to crack.

NEW YORK -- IT pros exploring alternatives to VMware are finding that multi-hypervisor management is a major hurdle.

VMware users at Interop last week said they already use or are looking at adding alternatives such as Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix XenServer or open source Xen to their shops. In large virtual infrastructures, the cost of VMware, distaste for vendor lock-in and advancements in Hyper-V R2 Service Pack 1 (SP1) have pushed administrators to go multi-hypervisor.

“The whole world is going to be multi-hypervisor eventually,” said Barb Goldworm, president at analyst firm Focus.

Why go multi-hypervisor?

Already, Hyper-V and XenServer have started to gain on VMware in the virtualization market. With Hyper-V SP1, Microsoft fixed the things people didn’t like about previous versions, such as the lack of dynamic memory allocation. Increased performance and new features now make it a viable competitor to VMware, Goldworm said. Hyper-V performance is now solid enough for admins to run SQL Server or Exchange Server on it, she said.

Other factors driving Hyper-V adoption include management capabilities and licensing. It’s easy for shops that already run Windows Server to license and add Hyper-V, because it comes as part of the operating system. Improved management and the “cloudification” of System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2012 will also push admins to try Hyper-V, Goldworm said. Plus, SCVMM 2012 will advance its own multi-hypervisor management capabilities, adding XenServer virtual machines (VMs) to the mix. (SCVMM already supports Hyper-V and VMware VMs.)

Recent licensing changes in vSphere 5 may have also driven some admins to check out alternatives to VMware.

“We’re really seeing people question staying with just one hypervisor, often because of cost,” said Eric Jackson, vice president of product management at VKernel, a virtualization management vendor.

Many IT shops find VMware too expensive for all their workloads, and admins seek to save money by running less-critical workloads on Hyper-V or Xen, Jackson said. Fear of vendor lock-in has also pushed some shops to add another virtualization platform.

“It’s easier to go with a single vendor, but that also puts you in a vulnerable position,” Jackson said.

For small virtual environments, trying out free hypervisors is often a case of “why not?”

Jeff Groeber, a Microsoft administrator at Sargento Foods, manages a predominantly VMware infrastructure with 200 virtual machines (VMs), but he is considering bringing in Hyper-V in the next six to 12 months. He is looking for alternatives to help applications run more efficiently and improve backup. Plus, he said, it would be fun and not too costly to test out.

Managing multiple hypervisors wouldn’t be difficult, because smaller organizations can usually get away with managing different platforms separately, Groeber said.

“Would it be nice to centrally manage the platforms? Yes, but it’s not a necessity,” he said.

Island management won’t last long

But for large virtual infrastructures, managing multiple platforms separately isn’t as practical. The “island” approach of segregating management is common among multi-hypervisor shops today, but it won’t necessarily work in the cloud. Cloud resources, applications and users come from more than one place, which makes it difficult to partition platforms from one another and manage them with separate tools.

This approach works fine if the two environments have very separate purposes and end users, Jackson said. But if the business requires users to access both platforms, administrators need to integrate them on the technical side.

“Solving the management problem is what enables you to go multi-hypervisor,” Jackson said.

It also depends what kind of management you’re talking about, Goldworm said. There are cross-platform management tools out there for backup and monitoring, for instance, but no one has yet solved the problem of centrally managing performance, disaster recovery, capacity and other areas with one tool, she said.

Allocating staff responsibilities is another way to simplify multi-hypervisor management. David Cherveny, an information systems engineer at the SAS Institute, said the VMware team in his organization (which also runs Hyper-V) manages the VMware network and vSwitches themselves. More and more shops are finding it easier to hand hypervisor-specific network administration over to virtualization admins.

As the licensing, training and multi-hypervisor management details are ironed out, IT will start seeing a lot more multi-hypervisor shops.

“We’re moving into a multi-hypervisor world, said Doug Hazelman, vice president of product strategy at Veeam Software. “It’s not just about VMware.”

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