Choosing the right virtualization management tools

Virtualization management tools that can distinguish between physical and virtual servers give IT administrators the ability to better monitor virtual machines and allocate resources.

Virtualization has become a powerful technology in modern data centers. The ability to do more work on less hardware is an attractive prospect that can improve energy efficiency and save money. But virtualization also comes with its own set of challenges. Adding virtual machines (VMs) can stress underlying hardware and network resources. To make matters worse, traditional system management tools are often ill-equipped to analyze resource allocation in a virtual environment, leaving IT administrators without the ability to manage resources effectively. In this podcast, Nick Martin, assistant site editor, sits down with virtualization expert Brien Posey to talk about virtualization management tools and how they can help improve performance in a virtualized data center.

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Choosing the right virtualization management tools

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Nick Martin: How do virtualization management tools differ from traditional management tools?

Brien Posey: Some of the key aspects of any management tool is the ability to monitor servers, report any problems that may occur and, in some cases, to take corrective actions. But one of the challenges introduced by virtualization is that the Performance Monitor counters that are often used when managing and monitoring [Windows environments] tend to be greatly skewed in virtual environments. The management tool you are using needs to be able to tell the difference between a host server, a VM and a standalone physical server, because all of those [hardware] need to be monitored in slightly different ways.

Martin: How much lab testing is really needed before rolling out new management tools for a virtual environment?

Posey: That's an interesting question, because there are two different ways you can look at that. You could approach that from the standpoint of how well your organization will be able to function after the adoption of the tool. In that case, one of the things you have to consider is whether you have other management tools in place. If so, are you going to be completely abandoning the tool, or will there be a transition period where you are using [multiple tools]? If you haven't been using a management tool previously, is there a reason why you couldn't continue to use the same management technique you had been using?

The other way you can look at that question is from the perspective of determining whether your investment in the virtualization management tool is worthwhile. [It’s worth it to] do some very extensive testing and only purchase a license once you're comfortable that the tool is really going to address all of your needs.

Martin: What kind of fallback plans should be in place in the event that there are problems with new virtualization management tools?

Posey: You need to have a two-tiered approach to fall back on. You don't want to just abandon [virtualization management tools] at the first sign of problems. If problems occur, the first step is to call tech support for the tool you just purchased. It could be that the problem is just something simple that they can easily resolve over the phone. Maybe it is something related to a learning curve that you haven't encountered yet. But if tech support is stumped, or it looks like the problem will take a while to sort out, you may want to have a procedure for reverting to the management technique you were previously using. This is assuming that management is critical, and you can't go a day or two without virtualization management software. You need to assess how much of a need there is to access that tool immediately, versus how long it's going to take to fix the problem

Martin: What type of capabilities or features should IT staff expect from a virtualization-aware system management tool?

Posey: It depends on your needs. Every package out there is different and every organization's needs are different. First and foremost, the management tool should be easy to use. I have seen some virtualization management tools out there that you need a doctorate in computer science to understand how to set them up, and the information that it provides is convoluted. Look for a tool that gives you information through a simplified dashboard that can immediately tell you the status of the systems you're managing and monitoring.

Also, the tool should be able to analyze event log information in real time across all of your systems and alert you to any conditions that need your attention before those conditions become problematic. A good management tool should be able to tell you when you need to allocate additional resources to your VMs. That's something that tends to happen quite frequently in virtual server environments and is generally something you need to react to very quickly.

One more thing that tends to be really important--your tool needs to be cross-platform capable. Just because you're using all VMware or Microsoft [hardware] today doesn't mean that will be the case tomorrow. You want to know that you have the flexibility to bring in cross-platform systems without completely abandoning your management tool.

Martin: Can you explain the tradeoffs between third-party virtualization management tools and those available from virtualization vendors?

Posey: The word trade-off implies that organizations are forced to pick one, choose solely between the tools that come from virtualization vendors or go with a third-party tool. In some cases, those tools don't even address the same areas. Sometimes, those third-party tools fill in gaps left by virtualization vendors’ tools. Sometimes, it's possible, or even advantageous, to use both. An example of that includes tools such as the Hyper-V Manager and the vSphere Client. They are very good for provisioning new machines, but they don't really do much when it comes to monitoring those machines. You could address that gap by using a tool like Quest vFoglight. Basically, you just have to make sure you have all your bases covered. Whether that means using all third-party tools, or a mixture of third-party and the tools that come from virtualization vendors, I don't think there's really a right or wrong way to approach the problem, as long as your needs are met.

This was last published in June 2011

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