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Virtualization Management: Time To Get Serious

IT teams are in for trouble if they don’t focus more on managing virtual environments, especially as virtualization moves beyond servers.

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Virtualization Management Virtualization has created its share of heroes in IT. A few years back, after a division of a Fortune 1000 financial company virtualized 800 servers over a 12-month period, the IT team was bathed in ROI glory: lower cooling costs, a smaller footprint, and cost savings on capital equipment and licensing. Life was good.

Fast forward to last year. Those 800 virtual servers had ballooned to 1,000, with no clear picture of the overall configuration, no tracking of the life cycle of each virtual machine, nor any record of how they grew so rapidly. A review of the team's procedures found a complete breakdown in protocol for provisioning computing power, blamed on a lack of management tools and poor organization. The team had to bring in consultants to help get the operation back in order.

Welcome to the back side of the virtualization wave.

It's rare to find anyone in IT who doesn't acknowledge the benefits of server virtualization. The core concept, of leveraging the power of the underlying hardware by logically provisioning the system into multiple virtual sessions, has existed since the age of the mainframe. But it was VMware's success virtualizing x86 servers that catapulted this technology approach into the distributed world. Today, you name it, and we'll try to virtualize it. iPhones running a hypervisor? Seriously. Why not?

Server virtualization is hurtling along--54% of the 391 business technology pros we surveyed expect at least half of their production servers will be virtualized in 2011. Companies are beginning to consider desktop, storage, and even infrastructure virtualization. Yet most IT operations don't have the management to effectively support server virtualization, let alone a big push into new areas.

More than half of the survey respondents who've embraced virtualization rely on the built-in tool provided by their hypervisor vendor, whether its VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, or someone else. This leaves them with two sets of tools to manage--one for the physical servers and one for the virtual environment. Only 10% of organizations have invested the time and money to implement a server management system that provides a single framework. The rest either use legacy tools that don't adequately handle a virtual environment, or they're doing nothing at all.

They're in for a rude awakening. Most of the survey respondents have plans or interest in expanding virtualization to desktops and storage. Server virtualization was relatively easy, since it typically involves just the core data center and server teams. Adding desktops and broader storage options brings in entirely different groups that typically have arm's-length cooperation at best. Flatten out your computing through virtualization and you'll find challenges to your traditional organizational structure at every level, from security and access to staffing and training requests.

Will today's virtualization heroes fall, done in by poor management of the sprawling VM farms that brought them glory? It doesn't have to happen.

Management Is More Than Tools

Virtualization management requires a lot of elements you should be doing already and shines a bright light on any infrastructure management shortcomings. If your organization was poorly run before virtualization, virtualizing likely will make it worse. For example, a large Connecticut municipality became increasingly concerned about potential problems with its virtualization plan in the event of host hardware failure. Funny thing is, the municipality's existing contingency plan for hardware failure had neither an inventory of spare servers nor any continuous data protection.

Virtualization changes slightly almost every aspect of your operational framework by removing or reducing the physical link between hardware and software. Sometimes that's obvious, such as not having to ask for a space in the data center to add a server. But some are subtle enough to slip past even sharp IT operations. Virtualization has redefined failover plans and ushered in a new model for disaster recovery and high availability, but one of the biggest oversights we see is companies forgetting to account for increased licensing costs.

It's particularly tempting to ignore the organizational changes that virtualization may spur, such as consolidating staff now comfortably in silos, managing servers, storage, desktops, or networking. Those kinds of decisions are easy to put off when IT sees the relatively low-hanging cost savings, such as server consolidation and power savings.

A framework such as ITIL offers a strong starting point to improve IT management and tackle the bigger-picture issues such as staff consolidation. Short of that, a first step any company can take is to build out a "most likely" model of how an operation will run after the virtualization wave. If you're well into virtualization, look down the road at how virtualization will expand and use that to force a discussion of the model IT operation. You will pick the virtualization level, but in all likelihood you should factor 60% to 70% server virtualization, 10% to 30% application or desktop virtualization, and a corresponding level of virtualization for supporting storage and infrastructure.

It's not an academic exercise because it will force the vision of one team. Virtualization at its truest form separates the hardware from the software layer, so there should no longer be a mainframe, Unix, X86, desktop, or cloud team. The resistance to the "one team" approach, though, is strong.

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