Management Toolsets Taking Virtualization Party To Next Level

Virtualization has taken root in large part because of the efficiencies it offers, but the bigger and more complex virtualization deployments become, the more challenging it is to keep track of all the moving pieces. This is why management tools are fast becoming a top priority for both server and desktop virtualization deployments.

The simple reason is that tools that monitor and manage the performance, capacity and configuration of virtualized environments can help administrators stay sane even as the number of virtual hosts in their environments proliferate. Just as important, they can also help companies operate with confidence that they're getting the most out of their virtualization investments.

Virtualization management technologies are in high demand at the moment: NetApp in February paid $60 million to acquire Littleton, Mass.-based Akorri, whose flagship BalancePoint management software offers performance capacity analytics for virtual and physical server and storage infrastructure. Solarwinds, an Austin, Texas-based IT management software vendor, in January acquired virtualization management startup Hyper9.

Virtualization solution providers expect the acquisitions to continue because legacy management toolsets aren't equipped to provide the kind of in-depth analysis that nimble startups are providing.

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"Virtualization gives organizations the ability to consolidate their infrastructure, but it also presents a whole new set of problems," said Dan Weiss, CEO and co-founder of Varrow, a virtualization solution provider in Greensboro, N.C. "Customers are coming to us and asking, 'How can we find out more about trend analysis and be ahead of the curve?'"

The speed at which the virtualization market is growing adds urgency to the management challenges. Worldwide virtualization software revenue for all CPU types jumped 36 percent year over year to $877 million in the fourth quarter of 2010, while virtualization licenses jumped 13 percent, according to IDC figures released in mid-April. IDC sees this growth driving sales of high-end virtualization management tools.

Mike Ritsema, president of i3 Business Solutions a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based solution provider, says more than 70 percent of the servers he's selling right now are virtualized, and he expects that figure to keep rising this year. "Virtualization is exploding, but managing the backup of multiple virtual machines is becoming a major pain point," he said.

Management of virtualized server environments has traditionally been about provisioning resources with a particular focus on increasing utilization of hardware and enabling companies to wring maximum return from their virtualization investments. This trend is shifting, though, and organizations are now looking for ways to improve the performance of applications running in these virtual environments, according to Joe Correia, virtualization practice expert at Daymark Solutions, Burlington, Mass.

"Virtualization management offerings have morphed into new applications with a focus on measuring and tuning application response from within a virtual environment, as well as providing a bridge between classic virtual environments, private clouds and public clouds," said Correia. "Normally, performance would be measured in host CPU, memory and storage utilization, but now most customers measure performance in terms of application response time."

Next: Where Management Is Critical

Over the last couple of years there has been a consolidation of the entire fabric of the data center into resource pools for server, networking, storage and compute resources. With this phase now essentially complete, organizations are now moving to virtualize mission critical applications.

Rob Smoot, director of product marketing for VMware’s vCenter management products, says the volume of recent acquisitions in the virtualization management space, by VMware and other vendors, underscores the importance of management tools in helping companies get to the next level in virtualization.

"This is where management function becomes critical," said Smoot. "If you're virtualizing applications, some of the management disciplines are more demanding, and customers are focusing on this."

Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware has made significant investments in the past 18 months to beef up its management capabilities. Last August, VMware shelled out $100 million to acquire Integrien, a maker of performance monitoring and analytics software for virtual and cloud environments. Last February, VMware acquired several management products from EMC's Ionix portfolio, including Server Configuration Manager (previously known as Configuresoft), FastScale, Application Discovery Manager (formerly nLayers), and Service Manager.

The technology from both deals is baked into VMware's VCloud Director, a software layer that operates on top of vSphere to enable administrators to manage virtualized environments more efficiently. It's also part of vCenter Operations, a set of new products designed for performance, capacity and configuration management in virtual and cloud environments running on vSphere.

"IT is now acting more as a service provider, managing the virtualized infrastructure and providing all the resources to the business," said Smoot. "vCloud Director allows you to take all of the resources in the data center, pool them together into virtual data centers, and present it to a business unit."

Management challenges are just as evident in desktop virtualization, where the explosion of mobile device usage has been throwing curve balls at IT administrators, first with smartphones and now with tablet PCs. "Employees want more device choice, and they want to be able to access their desktops from different locations and from different types of devices," said Terry Cosgrove, principal research analyst at Gartner.

In light of the growing number of security attacks targeting vulnerabilities that have already been patched, and the ineffectiveness of signature based antivirus software, desktop virtualization gives companies a way to minimize their attack surface through a standardized infrastructure. But standardization has a tendency to strip away personalization, and so startups have been cropping up to address this need.

Unidesk, a Marlborough, Mass.-based virtualization vendor, sells products that tackle the complexity of managing VDI, the costs of which are especially high in large enterprises. Unidesk's technology provides the standardization that IT departments crave as well as the ability for users to download applications beyond what IT delivers.

Goldman Sachs' recent decision to invest $70 million in AppSense, a 12-year old user virtualization vendor, is a sign of where things are headed on the desktop virtualization side. User virtualization tackles the IT challenge of preserving and managing an employee's personal workspace across a range of different devices and connection scenarios, whether the desktop is locally installed, virtualized, published, or streamed.

If the notion of 100 percent virtualization is attainable, and many solution providers believe it is, management tools are going to play a big role in getting companies over the hump. Whether through in-house development or via acquisition, vendors are going to be pulling out the stops to add management to their virtualization toolsets, and the end result could be to propel the technology to an even higher profile than it currently occupies.