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Tech Watch: Managing virtualization deployments for customers

Now that virtualization is entrenched in the data center, here comes the hard part -- managing virtualization deployments to prevent sprawl.

Now that virtualization deployments are creeping out of test beds and extending more deeply into corporate data centers, a serious challenge has risen: How can organizations manage these increasingly complex environments?'s Tech Watch series
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In February, market researcher IDC reported that 56% of companies with complex virtualization implementations believe that close management of this technology will be critical for reaching their business goals. Approximately 80% of IDC's survey respondents managing more than 50 virtual machines (VMs) said they apply, or plan to apply, Information Technology Infrastructure Library management practices. Another 70% use, or plan to use, software management tools, and the same percentage is looking toward automation as a critical component.

IDC surveyed 100 North American IT decision makers responsible for their companies' virtualization environments.

The data it brought in accompanies a flurry of activity including the emergence of virtualization infrastructure management software and services that help businesses make the most out of virtualized servers.

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"In some organizations, if it's not well thought-out, virtualizing your environment could cause more problems than it solves," said Chris Akerberg, president of Vizioncore Inc., a software developer in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Although it began life as a consulting company, Vizioncore is building a VAR channel and staking a claim in the industry. It has signed distribution deals with both Ingram Micro and Tech Data in recent months.

More virtualization management players come online

Aside from Vizioncore, better-known players include Akorri, DynamicOps, Embotics, Netuitive Inc., PlateSpin (now part of Novell Inc.) and ToutVirtual Inc. Akorri recently signed a distribution deal with Avnet Inc.

Very few organizations have committed 100% of their server resources to virtual machines, says Akerberg. In the average Vizioncore customer's data center, approximately 25% to 40% of servers are virtual. Relatively few companies support different VMs in that mix, at least for now, but one of Vizioncore's value propositions is that it can accommodate and manage heterogeneous virtual environments.

Tom Joyce, president and CEO of Akorri, Littleton, Mass., said many of his company's early customers didn't anticipate how difficult it could be to manage virtualized servers. One of Akorri's rallying cries is the software's ability to measure virtual workloads more closely and get a handle on what many refer to as "virtual sprawl." Virtual sprawl can be described as large numbers of virtualized servers that can't be managed as a whole and span several projects. As an example, one customer is now able to provision up to 35 VMs per physical server, up from 15 VMs, because it has a better handle on how the software is affecting CPU utilization.

Jay Litkey, CEO of Embotics, based in Ottawa, said virtualization management tools can help businesses address compliance requirements, which is one of the two main reasons customers have committed to his product. "It's a problem if you don't know how many VMs you have and you can't prove where they came from. You need to [be able to] audit the access controls. This affects licensing, access and security."

Increasingly, however, companies are looking to Embotics to help plan an extension of their existing virtual environment before they spend more on the software. Up until now, many organizations have virtualized the "easiest" servers, Litkey said, and they have been pleased with the overall return on investment. Now, businesses want to accelerate adoption of virtual servers without encountering the same lack of control and discipline across their infrastructure that inspired virtualization in the first place.

"There is added pressure right now to go and do this. It's new ground, especially as they get into the production data center," Litkey said.

Virtualization management requires an educated channel

The good news for VARs is that most of the vendors in this space are looking to channel partners to drive sales, especially those with existing virtualization practices.

In March, GlassHouse Technologes Inc., an IT infrastructure consulting and services company based in Framingham, Mass., launched what it calls a virtualization optimization service to help provide better discipline around this process. The practice applies monitoring, reporting and analysis to virtualized infrastructure so that companies can keep track of service levels and develop specific return on investment metrics. The intent, according to GlassHouse Director of Virtualization Services Rob Wilson, is to avoid the same sort of sprawl that threatened physical server deployments.

Among the specific services that GlassHouse offers are performance reporting on virtual machines and hosts, capacity planning metrics, configuration and asset management expertise, and forecasting and analysis of triggered events.

Kevin Carlson, senior client partner and technology architect for services company Optaros Inc., said VARs and data center integrators would do well to remember that virtual servers are subject to the same management challenges as other servers.

"People think this is easier than it is. You really need to think about all the traditional things, including load balancing and server management," Carlson said.

What's more, because not every server can be virtualized, virtual machines must be co-managed along with physical equipment so that administrators have a complete picture of the company's entire infrastructure, he added.

Mathew Haggerty, director of the infrastructure practice for New York-based Net@Work and a partner of Vizioncore, said other basic administrative functions that must be rethought include how (and when) to perform infrastructure backups. Virtualization will also allow organizations to more closely track utilization, drawing more insight about which departments are using certain server resources most and allowing companies' IT budgets to more accurately reflect true costs.

"This is really the next evolution in managing your platform. Virtualization changes so many things," Haggerty said.

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