Australia may be one of the most mature markets when it comes to the adoption of server virtualizaton, many organisations’ approach to managing virtual server machines, or VMs, could be described as ‘immature’, Tim Lohman, finds.
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Australia has been quick to adopt server virtualization for its ability to cut infrastructure costs and make organisations more agile but as often happens, the development of management techniques to handle this disruptive technology has struggled to keep up.
Managing virtual servers in the same way as their physical counterparts can lead to VM sprawl, security holes, capacity and performance blow-outs, the wrong mix of skills and potential collapse by the side of the road to on-demand infrastructure and the private Cloud.
The good news is that, like the physical world, the virtual world is indeed manageable, so long as you are aware of the challenges and the emerging best practices.
Far and away the most widely reported and common issue in managing server VMs is VM sprawl — the uncontrolled proliferation of virtual machines.
The great benefit of server virtualization is the incredible ease with which organisations can build and deploy virtual servers. However, it is this very ability that if unmanaged, can lead to tens or even hundreds of servers being created right under IT’s nose. On top of the impact on physical server and storage performance and capacity, there’s the related issues of whether these rogue VMs are compliant with security policies and software licensing.
The solution, Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) advisor, Kevin McIsaac, says, is actually very straight forward. Creating a virtual machine shouldn’t be a technical job; it should just be seen to be a part of the change management process.
McIsaac says the process should begin with the submission of a formal request for a given VM to be created, then that request should go through an approval cycle. Only then should the VM be created.
“You also want to record who owns that virtual machine, who the primary consumer of the service is, and what the purpose of the machine is — is it dev/test or is it something mission critical like for running email? You should also record things like ‘infrastructure criticality’ — is the VM mission-critical or just nice to have? Then you should put on an expiration period; how long should that machine be around for.
“Through having this record of your virtual machines you then have an expiration date so you can then call up the owner and ask if they are done with it. All of this is lifecycle management, but the other way to look at is being part of change management. It should all be grounded in change management even though it is partly lifecycle management.”
Milestone Group director global business operations, Simon Whitie, says there are now tools available, such as those available via the VMware ESX platform, to enable IT departments to differentiate user access to VMs.
“We can essentially delegate the viewing and management of say, an individual development VM, to the development team,” he says. “We have root control over all VMs but can create subset views depending on the access or the administration rights we are happy to delegate.
“In other words, we don’t have one access control level that allows for server sprawl, other than essentially me approving it and one of the IT services team actually creating the instance and making it available. Once it is available we can delegate the guest OS rights for those guys to do whatever they like.”
Tools can be part of the solution but it is important to have the right mix in managing your virtual infrastructure, Gartner analyst, Errol Rasit, stresses. Otherwise they could become part of the problem.
“Virtualization vendors have a whole suite of paid-for tools available to end-user organisations to really mange the whole life cycle of virtual machines,” he says. “However there is a stage where you can over-automate and lose control through having too many alerts or maybe not enough, so you really need the right mix.”
Another approach to managing VM sprawl is to set up a charge-back mechanism, where IT makes the business pay for its use of VMs and the physical resources which underpin them. In this way, IT department can show the business what the real cost of VMs, Roaring 40s IT manager, Steane Walsh, says.
“One of the challenges with virtualization is you put in all this capacity and people assume that it is almost free,” he says. “Unless you go and allocate that cost back into new projects, you end up chewing up all your virtualization resources. You’ll have to go to management and ask for another million bucks to effectively go and put another VM cluster in.”
Walsh says Roaring 40s set up its internal chargeback system based on three areas: Servers or virtual boxes, storage based on gigabyte blocks, and an operational cost. “It is just much easier at the start of a project to say that they have to allocate it as part of their costs and explain to them why rather than trying to recover the costs later in the project,” he says.
Walsh says this approach also helps complying with software licensing requirements — something that can get out of hand quickly if the business is allowed to create its own virtual machines at will.
“I think people can forget that even though it is virtual, it is still a server and you have a Microsoft or Red Hat licence [to pay for], plus the maintenance costs on top of that,” he says. “I’m in an outsourced agreement with Logica, so I really feel it in the hip pocket. For every server someone has to look after, the outsourcer is going to charge us man hours for taking on the risk and responsibility of managing that.”
Next: Security and performance, capacity, storage