Make the right choices for your company, implement the most critical functionality and deploy the ultimate solution.
Most modern data centers have become quagmires of chaos — multitiered applications, hybrid clouds, multiple sites, 24x7 expectations, latency-sensitive applications, slashed budgets and a constant rate of change. Many data center managers and admins struggle to simply keep from falling further into the abyss.
The truth is that the future of your data center doesn't have to be bleak. Most enterprises have adopted virtualization for some of their data and applications, which is a step in the right direction. However, like an airplane aloft without fuel, most enterprise data centers won't be able to glide along much further as things stand.
The fuel that many data centers are missing is two-fold:
The more servers you have virtualized, the greater management and cost efficiencies you'll gain. And because virtualization is about maximizing your data center investment, it requires a smart performance management solution to ensure that you don't exceed your hardware's capacity or mis-size your virtual machine (VM) containers. With the right tools, your virtual infrastructure will perform and operate efficiently on a daily basis. Read on to understand more about this virtualization management vision.
Once upon a time, the speed of hardware outpaced the speed of software. The CPU, memory and storage capacities of data center servers left the inefficient operating systems and applications behind. Like a jumbo jet carrying just one passenger, servers in the data center spent most of their time sitting idle while the company was paying the price in dollars and IT admins were paying the price in management overhead. Technologists around the world realized that there had to be a better way — modern server virtualization.
As with most data center changes, server virtualization came on the scene as a low priority. At most companies, server virtualization first proved its worth in the development and testing environment. Not only did server virtualization provide greater return on investment for data center hardware, but it also made the life of administrators and developers easier.
If server virtualization could provide such vast improvements for "dev and test," then why not implement it in production? Because first server virtualization had to mature.
As usual, the "bleeding-edge" companies tested the waters and proved that server virtualization could work. After major advancements in performance, reliability and availability, virtualization now is used for production at most companies in the world and for just about every type of application.
On average, companies that started with server virtualization a few years back have now virtualized roughly half of their servers. Virtualization is mature, yet the pace of consolidation has slowed. Why?
Many enterprises have realized that while server virtualization is ready, the management tools they have in place aren't. Some companies are using aging physical server management tools that have sort of morphed into virtualization management tools but can't quite do the job. Other companies have implemented a "shiny and new" virtualization management tool but are realizing that, while it has pretty charts and graphs, it really doesn't help them as promised.
The journey from virtualizing your first test server to virtualizing your last production server has several defined stages along the way. It's important to understand where you are on the journey so you can figure out how to get to the finish line.
The waypoints along the virtualization journey:
Companies that complete the consolidation of their servers with virtualization can begin the journey to cloud computing. However, the vast majority of enterprises remain stalled out at roughly the 50 percent virtualization mark.
Good virtualization management software can make your life easier in a number of ways. See what's happening with your servers, virtual machines, resource utilization and trends over time with one glance.
Gain confidence that your virtual infrastructure is in harmony through analysis, reporting and visibility. Virtualization management software allows you to see what's happening with your servers, virtual machines, resource utilization and trends over time with one glance. You also can determine whether or not there is a problem.
To help you understand the performance of your virtual machines as well as overall capacity utilization — historically and in real time — virtualization management tools must show deep insight into how virtual infrastructures work. Virtual machines are dynamically sized containers that move from one server to the next and from one storage container to the next. Their resource demands fluctuate on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis. Virtualization management tools must take all of this into account, know what is normal and be able to use that knowledge to help you prevent performance problems and capacity shortages before they happen.
Service-level agreements (SLAs) between IT departments and higher-level business management define what the acceptable level of service is for the organization's most critical applications.
Service levels cannot be accurately monitored or proven without a tool capable of those measurements. Combining service-level monitoring and reporting capabilities in a performance management tool is, by far, the most efficient design.
Undeniably, one goal of server virtualization is to drive up utilization of CPU, memory, disk and network resources. As you add more and more virtual machines to the virtual infrastructure, you inevitably experience new bottlenecks. Can you predict your next bottleneck and understand how it will affect your applications?
Good virtualization management tools alert IT admins to how many days until their CPU, memory, disk (I/O and capacity) and network resources are depleted so they can prevent performance problems before they happen.
In most organizations, when a new virtual machine container is created, it is assigned a fixed amount of resources. However, resource utilization changes over time, so ideally resource allocation versus utilization should be analyzed on a regular basis to ensure that your virtual machines are the right size.
Underprovisioned virtual machines can create performance problems, including application slowness or even a total outage.
When a virtual machine is underprovisioned, many IT managers immediately add more resources to it, which can actually lead to overprovisioning and wasted resources. In other cases, the waste occurs when virtual machines are first provisioned because it can be difficult to predict resource utilization prior to server virtualization.
Virtualization management tools can help analyze virtual machine resource utilization, report under- and overprovisioning on a regular basis and even take action to help, when authorized.
As you work toward complete virtualization, what additional hardware resources will you need and when will you need them? In conjunction with bottleneck prevention, your virtualization management tool should model resource utilization to allow enough time for you to size new hardware, budget for it, await approval, deploy it and bring it online in the cluster to share the load — all prior to resource depletion.
Along with forecasting and resource provisioning, your virtualization tool should allow you to run what-if scenarios. For example, you may want to explore — and run actual numbers for — questions, such as "If I doubled the memory on all my servers, how many more virtual machines could I add? And when would I hit another memory bottleneck?" or "If I added five more servers at X capacity, how many more virtual machines could I add?"
Virtualization management tools can help analyze virtual machine resource utilization and report under- or overprovisioning on a regular basis.
Even with the best capacity and performance analysis tools, eventually trouble will occur in the virtual infrastructure. You may encounter a hardware failure, a network switch failure, a SAN controller reset or other issue. When these events happen, your virtualization management solution should be able to identify the source of the problem quickly so that you don't waste time investigating dead ends until you stumble upon the source.
In many enterprises, even a short outage can cost millions of dollars. Virtualization management tools must provide root-cause analysis data quickly.
Virtual infrastructures require that you employ a monitoring and alerting tool with higher intelligence. When a failure occurs in the virtual infrastructure, rarely does just a single virtual machine fail. For example, if a SAN LUN fails, you need virtualization management tools that will not only alert you that the LUN failed but also that will give you a list of the virtual machines running on the LUN — not 100 separate alerts for every virtual machine that goes down. Or, if a physical server fails, you want to be alerted
that the physical server failed and that all virtual machines on that server were successfully restarted on other servers (thanks to vSphere High Availability, for example) — not 100 separate alerts when the virtual machines go down and 100 more alerts when they came back up.
With the rising popularity of cloud computing, many enterprises are rightly considering moving some portion of their data center to a public cloud. However, public clouds are sold in specific computing units and you pay for what you use. A smart tool will be able to analyze your current virtual infrastructure utilization and help you estimate the cost savings you would see if you moved one or more servers to the public cloud.
Your virtual infrastructure supports your company's applications. When it comes time to justify new infrastructure purchases or replacements, you need to know what company departments, divisions or business units are using what resources. You can't divide the cost evenly nor should you ask the departments to throw out estimates. You need real analytics to make sound business decisions about upgrades. A smart tool can help you review virtual infrastructure performance utilization over time combined with common infrastructure costs (or customizable values) to provide IT chargeback or showback reporting. You can use these reports to divide the costs of an upgrade, for example, or provide a monthly report to the business units detailing the associated cost of their utilization.
Many outages are caused by unplanned or mistaken changes to the infrastructure. That's why change monitoring and management is a critical component of any virtualization management tool. In addition to monitoring changes in the virtual infrastructure, many virtualization tools can remediate those changes to "fix" what was changed.
For true visibility, your virtualization management tools need to provide application insight. For example, service-level reporting shouldn't just notify you that the "SQL Server VM was available 99.9 percent of the time." You must actually know if SQL Server, as an application, was available 99.9 percent of the time. In another example, the "ping response to the SQL Server has been < 5 ms" is not adequate information. You need to know that the "SQL server test query response takes consistently < 5 ms."
With more and more virtualization management products hitting the market, it's challenging to sort through the marketing buzz to find the right tool for your organization. In addition, good virtualization management products are sometimes offered by weak vendors, so you may not get the service and support you need to get the most out of your investment. At the same time, poor virtualization management products can be offered by strong vendors, so you may choose a vendor knowing you'll get great service but then learn that the solution is lacking in some way. Read on to learn about what to look for in a vendor as well as tips for comparing the products offered.
Good vendors share many of the same characteristics, regardless of the industry or product category. For example, you always want access to good customer support, right? However, when it comes to purchasing software, you should be aware of certain characteristics unique to this industry.
When sussing out virtualization software vendors, here are a few things to consider:
As they say in the investment community "past performance does not indicate future results." While this saying is generally true, the history and stability of a company is still an important factor in selecting a software vendor. After all, you want a vendor who has been around for some time and has proven success.
What you don't want is a vendor that just started offering virtualization management software last month or a vendor that could go out of business a few months after your purchase. It's best to avoid brand new products (unless it's for a very niche use case) because they won't have a mature feature set to give you the most for your money.
When it comes to learning about the history of a vendor, try to ask every vendor the same questions:
The answers to these questions can tell you a lot about the company. The acquisition of virtualization management software is really more than a purchase; you are actually starting a new partnership with your software vendor.
Take steps to ensure that the vendor you select offers fast, quality support. Prior to your purchase, during your evaluation or proof of concept (POC) period, be sure to put the vendor's support system to the test — more than once.
Here are a few things to look for:
An ecosystem is a community of living organisms that work together. In the realm of technology, the "ecosystem" is not entirely a living organism, although it works in a similar way and certainly includes living, breathing people in a community of developers and users. The strength of a product or technology's ecosystem can be the difference between success and failure for a vendor — and it can determine your organization's success or failure in using the vendor's product.
For example, a company might create a strong ecosystem through well documented application programming interfaces (APIs), great software partners, education and certification programs, community support offerings, and high-quality online resources such as free online video trainings. When a virtualization management software vendor makes it easy for other vendors to create plug-ins to expand functionality, it also helps build the ecosystem and ultimately makes customers happy.
One way to learn more about a product's ecosystem is to ask around at a local user group meeting or in an online forum to see who else is using the product, what their experience has been and what they think of the ecosystem.
A large user base not only helps create a solid ecosystem, but it also shows that the product is popular. The size of the user base can indicate how much support you might expect to find in a community forum, the number of blog posts you might find about the product and the number of books out there focused on the product. Ask any potential vendors about the size of their user base during your product selection process.
A vendor's licensing model determines the price that your company ultimately pays as well as your return on investment. Different software vendors have various pricing models, each with its own set of pros and cons. Here are some of the most popular ones:
The combination of the licensing model you agree to and the particular price point determines the ultimate price that your company pays. You need to use that final cost in your return on investment calculations.
The licensing model determines the price that your company ultimately pays as well as your return on investment.
Many organizations make purchase decisions based on whether or not something is available in a suite or a bundle. The classic example of a vendor successfully selling a suite or bundle of software is Microsoft Office. Today most companies use the Microsoft Office suite even though in the past they might have only needed one of the solutions in the bundle, such as a word processor. Because Microsoft began offering a bundle of solutions together as a suite, enterprises were able to get several applications in one package deal. The Office suite has been a success for both Microsoft and enterprise business in general. It has greatly affected the way modern business is conducted. However, some people may question whether businesses have ultimately paid more for their business applications than they would have since they were previously not using all of the applications in the suite — and maybe still aren't.
When it comes to virtualization management software, many companies will purchase a solution from a vendor that they are already doing business with so they can bundle multiple products together into a single purchase. For example, you might consider purchasing your virtualization management software from your hardware vendor, your VAR, your backup software vendor or another source where you can bundle products together to save money or to simplify IT management by having fewer vendors.
Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of taking the easier bundled route versus selecting the best products for each separate need in your organization.
Before purchasing a virtualization management solution, find out whether the vendor is committed to making a future investment in software development for the product. You don't want to purchase a product that will be discontinued the following year or receive no new features or enhancements over time — especially if you're paying for software maintenance.
One way to determine a vendor's plan for future investment is to simply ask what the research and development budget is for the product. Or ask how many developers the company has working on new features and enhancements. You also can look at the release history of the product. For example, in the past three years, how many new releases were made to the product? And did they provide valuable new features? If a product has been frequently updated and enhanced in the past, it's likely that it will be frequently updated and enhanced in the future — as long as nothing major changes with the company, such as being acquired.
When selecting a virtualization management software solution, look at each vendor's experience across multiple disciplines. If a company is strong in data protection, that doesn't necessarily mean it's also strong in performance and capacity management. Virtualization management requires deep experience in server performance (CPU and memory), network performance, storage performance and even application performance. In addition, virtualization performance management must bring together data from these multiple domains and provide actionable insight and recommendations to help you troubleshoot your real-time congestion issues as well as manage your long-term capacity.
When selecting a virtualization management solution, find out whether or not the vendor has a history of creating strong products that can analyze over multiple disciplines. If it's a startup company, find out where its management team and developers came from to understand their experience in virtualization management.
Once you've narrowed down your list of preferred vendors, you can begin to compare their best virtualization management products. Here are some of the most important factors to consider when evaluating the products:
The product feature set is probably the most important factor to consider when selecting a virtualization management solution. The feature set is the list of capabilities the product offers, such as monitoring and alerts about host and virtual machine issues, performance analysis, capacity utilization predictions, capacity bottleneck identification, change tracking, and other tasks.
When comparing product features, be careful not to use "check box analysis" and assume that one product's feature is equal to another product's feature by the same name. Take time to compare the most important product features for yourself, if possible — or talk to other users who are familiar with the product.
Of growing importance is whether a virtualization management solution supports multiple hypervisors and multiple cloud management platforms. Find out if the product can manage VMware vSphere as well as Microsoft Hyper-V. It's also useful if a virtualization management tool can manage virtual machines running in public clouds, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), VMware's vCloud Air or Microsoft Azure. Even if you aren't using multiple hypervisors today and don't have plans to use a cloud management platform, these capabilities are still important when selecting a virtualization management tool to ensure that your selection is future-proofed.
Find out whether or not a virtual appliance can scale with your business.
When selecting a virtualization management product you should consider the complexity of the deployment process as well as the resource requirements. As part of your product evaluation or proof of concept, you'll find out about resource requirements as well as what it takes to deploy the product. However, keep in mind that a small proof of concept will be much different from a large enterprise data center deployment.
You can now download and deploy some software applications as a virtual appliance. With this option, you do not have to purchase an operating system or even install the application. It's important with this approach, however, to find out whether or not the appliance can scale with your business and how secure it is.
Scalability concerns increase if the virtualization management application database is contained inside a virtual appliance. Some products are sold as a service, which means that you purchase the product using subscription-based pricing. This approach usually requires no installation in the customer data center at all or a small virtual appliance can be used to send data to and from the vendor's data center over the internet. With "management as a service" solutions, the deployment process and resource requirements are virtually eliminated. The downside is that you are totally dependent on the vendor and will need to address security.
Regardless of the size of your virtual infrastructure, sooner or later you'll want to expand your virtualization management product or use it with other management tools to provide insight into what's happening outside the virtual infrastructure.
For example, if your virtualization management tool tells you that a virtual machine running a database is experiencing high CPU utilization, you'll probably want to know which database it's referring to. Most virtualization management tools cannot provide this level of insight without expandability. One way to expand your solution's capabilities would be to add a plug-in that could provide the needed insight into database table utilization.
Another way to get more detailed information is through interoperability. For example, some virtualization management tools can be set up to talk directly to a database management application that would, in this case, provide your virtualization management tool with information about which database table is experiencing trouble. In addition, your virtualization management tool could send data in the opposite direction and tell the database tool about host and virtual machine utilization.
With expandability and interoperability, the data exchanges required to allow the various management tools to work together usually take place through APIs. Your virtualization management solution should offer a well-documented and supported API so that any interoperability you need in the future will be available and easy to do.
Your virtualization management solution should offer a well-documented and supported API.
You obviously want to make sure that the virtualization management solution is able to support the size of your virtual infrastructure today. But if you have a small virtual infrastructure or expect your organization to grow, you'll want to ensure that the solution can scale up to meet your future needs. Take a look at what other organizations are using the tool and how they have scaled the product over time. Ask the vendor to provide case studies or customer references so you can discuss scalability — among other aspects of the product — with someone directly.
Scalability is related closely to the architecture used in the design of any virtualization management solution.
Whether you understand application development or not, it's important to ask about the architecture of any virtualization management software product that you purchase. The software's architecture determines its scalability, complexity, extensibility and required maintenance.
Here are a few questions to ask the vendors:
It's important to discuss the software architecture with a knowledgeable software engineer working for the vendor. If you need further help interpreting the information, find another software engineer (not working for the vendor) to help you understand how the architecture works and whether it supports your organization's business goals.
In the past, most enterprise applications used Windows-based clients as their front end, which talked to an application and database server in the data center. Over time, the Windows-based clients moved from so-called "fat clients" to "thin clients," and today most enterprise applications, including virtualization management software, are moving to web-based clients. With web-based clients, there's no installation requirement for users and no compatibility issues with supported web browsers. Applications can be accessed from any device, and users do not have to update or patch their own clients.
In the past, most enterprise management applications offered options for mobile users to manage the data center remotely. Today, more and more enterprise application user interfaces incorporate mobile device usage into the initial design, offering better support and usability for IT professionals to work remotely. When shopping for a virtualization management application, be sure to test the tool using a mobile device. Ideally, this test would be part of your evaluation and proof of concept process.
Usability is often overlooked when evaluating enterprise software. Too many enterprise applications use clunky, out-of-date front-end interfaces that are not only ugly but also inefficient. Administrators waste time, become frustrated and sometimes have issues with system downtime.
You usually can get a good feel for the usability of an application simply by spending an hour on your own trying to accomplish common tasks. You should know pretty quickly whether or not the application is well-designed, intuitive and easy-to-use.
The leading virtualization management software vendors have user interface designers on staff who frequently conduct usability studies to find opportunities to improve the application's usability. Those vendors usually refresh the application's user interface as often as possible to ensure that the application is not only appealing but also efficient and intuitive.
Most enterprise-grade applications today use HTML5 web-based interfaces that are responsive and designed with mobile devices in mind.
Another consideration when selecting a virtualization management product is its support for multiuser and role-based access. Many virtualization management applications start off with just a single user — the virtualization admin. But as the virtual infrastructure grows, the number of administrators will increase along with the number of opportunities to delegate specific responsibilities to application owners, support personnel and power users. For example, you might want to authorize a support manager to view performance charts on a group of critical virtual machines. Of course, you would not want to grant full virtualization admin rights or give that person the virtualization admin username and password. A versatile virtualization management application can provide you with the ability to assign role-based access. Another example might be granting a role in the application to an individual Windows AD user or group of users to view the performance data that they need, without giving them access to other areas.
It's critical to run a virtualization management application in your own environment for some period of time before committing to a purchase. During the evaluation period, the value of the application should become apparent. Evaluation periods for virtualization management software generally range from seven to 90 days. A longer proof-of-concept project can provide you with an extended evaluation window.
Ultimately, you want your virtualization management solution to provide greater overall value to you and your IT organization than the cost of the software application. Not value strictly in terms of financial calculations (such as present or future monetary value), but rather overall positive value that the product brings to the organization. You want to feel that the product was worth the financial investment.
For financial people, such as CFOs and accountants, however, you should be prepared to prove that the management application provides a positive return on investment (ROI) in a reasonable amount of time. ROI is calculated using the following equation:
ROI = (gain from investment – cost of investment) / cost of investment
The software application vendor should be able to quote the cost of the product, but calculating the overall value gained is more subjective because it can include "soft costs" such as efficiency improvements. Ideally, the "gain from investment" value in the ROI calculation should be based on the most concrete numbers available. For example, you may be able to use the financial gains from increased uptime (eliminating downtime) or faster transaction times based on performance improvements.
Another way to calculate the value of an application is to look at how much money you save by using it. For example, if a virtualization management tool reports that 50 of your virtual machines are overprovisioned, you can right-size those virtual machines and not have to purchase additional server capacity. You can easily calculate the amount of money saved, thanks to your virtualization management tool. To put that in terms of ROI: If you spend $10,000 on a virtualization management tool and it prevents you from having to purchase an additional server for $20,000, the immediate return on investment is $10,000. Most software purchases generally don't provide immediate ROI but rather do so over time. If a virtualization management tool can truly provide immediate or short-term ROI, it's likely to be an easily approved purchase.
You want your virtualization management solution to provide more value to your organization than the cost of the software application.
Once you've narrowed down the vendors you might like to work with and compared top-level capabilities in a few virtualization management products, you'll want to look at the more specific functionality offered in each solution.
For example, you might want your virtualization management application to offer reporting capabilities, what-if scenarios, problem prediction, change management and other capabilities.
Read on for a list of critical functions to look for in a virtualization management tool.
A good virtualization management tool should be able to help you visualize what's happening in your virtual infrastructure. For example, you might learn that 16,384 MB is being used on a physical server by your virtual machines. But it would be even more useful to easily see explicit details at a glance:
Ideally, this information is presented in easy-to-read charts and graphs to help you visualize what is happening in your virtual infrastructure. You should be able to take a quick glance at the graphic information and know whether you have a problem or not and be able to identify trends in your infrastructure. Appealing charts and graphs also make it easy to check the status of the virtual infrastructure on a large screen, for example, in the data center.
At the same time, many vendors focus on pretty charts and graphs because that is the most appealing feature in their virtualization management offering. While appealing charts and graphs are a core requirement of a virtualization management tool, they must be immediately easy to understand and not overly complicated. Note that some vendors have taken charts and graphs to another level by incorporating heat maps and other innovative visualizations.
An alerting mechanism is also a core function of a virtualization management tool. Virtual infrastructure administrators need to be notified quickly when problems arise so that they can resolve them right away. When a virtual data store is experiencing high storage latency, for example, all the applications running on virtual machines stored in that data store will experience degradation. This situation needs a quick response.
Smart virtualization management tools offer advanced alerting capabilities that develop baselines over time so that they know what normal utilization and performance is for your virtual infrastructure. When there is a deviation from that normal behavior, the virtualization management tool will alert the administrator about the problem and, hopefully, offer a recommendation for remediation.
Every virtualization management tool should apply some set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to the virtual infrastructure. These indicators should be considered during real-time analysis as well as historical analysis. Examples of KPIs include performance, availability, CPU utilization, memory utilization, storage capacity and storage latency. Every virtualization management tool will use different KPIs, but most will look at the same common statistics related to performance and availability.
Your virtualization management tool should be able to quickly identify the most valuable KPIs and help you monitor them over time to ensure that your virtual infrastructure is on the right track.
Traditionally, virtualization management tools monitored critical events, reported utilization and sent alerts when a threshold was violated. Over time, those tools were enhanced with the addition of capacity management and planning capabilities.
Today, performance monitoring, alerts and basic capacity management make up the core functionality of most virtualization management tools. Most vendors increase the value of their tools by adding features and functions to this core set. (We'll take a look at some of those later.)
Critical performance monitoring includes monitoring, sending alerts and creating historical reports related to certain statistics:
Capacity management, analysis and planning tools use these performance statistics, recorded over time, to help virtualization administrators predict their future capacity utilization to understand how much capacity will be available for additional virtual machines down the road. This forecasting also can help administrators determine when they need to add server or storage resources. Performance statistics can even help prevent capacity bottlenecks before they happen and are also extremely useful for IT budgeting.
Some capacity analysis tools allow you to build what-if scenarios. Administrators can plug in queries based on the current resource utilization to explore possible outcomes. For example, how many more virtual machines could be added if the memory across all virtual hosts increases to 64GB? Or how much more storage capacity is needed to add 200 virtual machines, given the average disk capacity utilization rates of my existing virtual machines? Or if 50 new servers of a given capacity were added, how many more virtual machines of a given specific capacity could be added to the virtual infrastructure? These are all great questions to explore when planning for future expansion of your virtual infrastructure.
Virtual infrastructure optimization is important because virtual machine resource requirements can be difficult to determine and generally vary over time. For example, if virtual machines are overprovisioned, resources that could be used by other virtual machines are wasted. Overprovisioning also wastes your investment in server capacity. If virtual machines are underprovisioned, the applications running inside will perform slowly. When a virtual machine is at it's optimal resource configuration, it is considered "right-sized." However, once a virtual machine has been rightsized, it won't likely be right-sized for long because the application running inside will have variable usage over time.
Virtualization management tools can help you perform numerous other optimizations:
Virtualization optimization can save enough in recouped resources to, in effect, pay for the virtualization optimization tool. New virtual machines can be added without needing to purchase additional servers or virtual machines can be consolidated onto fewer servers, allowing other servers to be returned on lease or shut down.
When you run out of resources in an area of your virtual machine, you suffer a capacity bottleneck, which can cause applications to run slowly or stop working altogether. Troubleshooting capacity bottlenecks can be difficult and can take time, resulting in system downtime, frustration for end users and a negative image for the IT department.
Some data center problems are related to configuration issues or server outages. However, most problems in the data center result from performance or capacity issues. A key capability in a virtualization management tool is problem detection and prevention — often called "bottleneck identification and prevention."
A good virtualization management tool can find problems in the data center quickly, determine how to fix them and offer ideas for preventing them in the future. Using your virtualization management solution to prevent problems increases its value exponentially because you avoid end-user frustration, preserve your CIO's reputation and simplify IT administrators' jobs. When administrators know that a bottleneck is coming, they can fix the situation before it happens.
Most virtualization management tools can provide you with some valuable information. However, it's difficult to find a virtualization management tool that allows you to monitor and manage the entire virtual infrastructure — or perhaps even the entire data center — from a single window.
While not every tool can offer a "single pane of glass" for the entire virtual infrastructure or data center, it's important to find out how close the tool you are considering will get you. Extensibility allows for various capabilities to be added to help cover your bases. In some cases, these capabilities are added via a plug-in, extension or widget that pulls data from another management tool and displays it in your virtualization management tool in another tab or window.
Some virtualization management tools take extensibility a step further by bringing data from other management platforms into your primary management platform data set. This setup allows the virtualization management tool to report on the integrated data and correlated it with data from your primary platform (and other integrated data) to give you a complete view of your data center infrastructure. For example, if your performance and capacity management tool could bring in data from web servers, database servers and email servers showing requests per second, transactions per second and messages per second, you could see in a single graph when and how application-level utilization increases effect the utilization of server and storage resources such as CPU, memory and IO utilization. This level of integration gives you a single, end–to-end view of your virtual infrastructure.
When working with a service provider, customers demand servicelevel agreements (SLAs) that promise a certain level of service for their applications, servers, networks and technical support requests. In larger companies, the use of service-level agreements also has become the norm between IT departments and the rest of the organization. Even if your company doesn't use service-level agreements, it's smart to create baseline internal standards for the level of service you are providing and then determine how you can maintain or improve on those expectations. Having standard service-level agreements also can help justify your IT budgets and salary increases over time.
To set and track service-level agreements, you need good IT management tools that can help you set specific high-level metrics and track them for a long period of time.
To calculate a metric such as application uptime, you need a tool that recognizes that application specifically (a ping to the server might not guarantee that the application was really available). It must be checked every x number of seconds, recorded and then continue to be available for reporting at any time. When it comes to tracking metrics such as network latency or MTTR, it gets more complex because there are so many different systems to monitor and report on.
To bill customers for their monthly usage, service providers and hosting companies use a chargeback application that reports on usage per customer (which is definable), what tier of services they used, which of their applications use the services and what the cost was for the resources, based on predefined numbers. With all of this information detailed, the data center admin can send automated resource utilization reports with associated costs.
With chargeback, costs can be used to generate invoices from IT to the hosting tenant or to the internal company division or group.
Those costs can be used to generate invoices from IT to the hosting tenant or to the internal company division or group if you opt to implement chargeback. On the other hand, if you simply want to have a report showing what business unit or group is using what resources with their associated costs, you could create "showback" and not actually invoice the business unit. Many businesses use showback for IT planning purposes to justify infrastructure upgrades and other budgetary items.
Because performance issues, capacity issues and outages are, in many cases, caused by changes in the IT environment, it's becoming more and more important for virtualization management tools to track and correlate any changes. For example, if someone accidentally shut down a host comprising a three-host cluster with one-third of the compute capacity lost, performance issues will likely arise for the virtual machines that are now running with significantly fewer physical resources to back up their virtual resources. Or maybe someone wants to optimize the environment and reduces the amount of vRAM on a virtual machine from 8GB to 2GB not realizing that once a month that virtual machine is used to process data and create payroll reports. When the payroll department complains that the reports are running slowly, the IT administrator can check the virtualization management tool's utilization graphs and see that a change was made to resize the virtual machine memory — which is the root cause of the performance problem.
Some change management tools also allow the administrator to revert changes. So if a virtual machine's memory was improperly downsized, the administrator could revert the changes to return the memory back to its previous level and remediate the performance issue.
Because virtual infrastructures are used to consolidate servers more and more densely, the majority of performance issues stem from storage I/O contention. Any tool that analyzes virtual infrastructure performance and capacity would be incomplete without some kind of storage I/O and capacity analysis piece. The source of raw storage statistics also is an important consideration. You want your virtualization management tool to obtain storage statistics from your virtualization management platform (such as VMware vCenter); however; it's also valuable to obtain storage statistics directly from your physical storage systems as well.
More advanced virtualization management tools can directly access your storage arrays and storage fabrics using industry standard protocols such as CIM and SIM-S. Many virtualization management tools that manage VMware vSphere infrastructures support the VMware vSphere API for Storage Awareness to report storage properties, latencies and availabilities. If your virtualization management tool can go directly to your storage, you can easily identify configuration errors, resource starvation issues and performance bottlenecks from the firsthand perspective of the storage system.
These days, virtualization management tools communicate directly with critical applications deeper in the data center stack, such as Active Directory, Exchange, web servers, and database or SQL servers, for more extensive knowledge and analysis. As we've seen with other capabilities, this application-level analysis can be done in a variety of ways. The virtualization management tool could allow another application-level reporting tool to display statistics in the same console. In this case, the virtualization management tool would not need to be aware of the application in particular. To access and bring back statistics directly from an application requires a vendor to have greater knowledge and put more extensive development into its virtualization management software. Data accessed directly from an application can be brought into the management tool's database to be correlated, analyzed and reported to the virtualization manager, providing greater insight into how application issues might cause infrastructure performance issues and vice versa.
With server infrastructure, automation generally applies to common server admin tasks. With virtualization management, you can certainly automate common tasks; however, what you really want to look for when selecting a virtualization management tool is the level of human interaction required for it to do its job. Find out how much daily input is needed from the administrator once the tool has been up and running in your environment for a week or so. Does the admin have to deal with a daily barrage of alerts — many of which are false positives? You want to avoid applications that provide some basic level of assistance but require a huge amount of daily babysitting. Virtualization management tools should be automated enough that they require a minimal amount of human input once they have had time to learn the environment.
Not every company has achieved 100 percent virtualization — most companies still run some physical servers in the data center. If you are one of those companies, consider virtualization management tools that also can manage physical servers. It's better to have fewer tools for managing your data center to help make your team as efficient as possible. If your virtualization management tool doesn't support the management of physical servers using agents then perhaps it can receive alerts from them or vice versa. More frequently, virtualization management tools also support the management of converged infrastructures such as Cisco UCS.
As public infrastructure clouds have matured, more companies are considering or even making the move to the cloud. With that transition, companies need virtualization management tools that can support the management of the virtual machines, whether they are on premises or off premises in the public cloud. The most common public infrastructure clouds that virtualization management tools can manage are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and VMware vCloud Air. Find out whether or not your virtualization management tools support management of your virtual machines when they transition.
Some virtualization management tools have excellent user interfaces and others are lacking. You want the default interface to be as usable and appealing as possible. Once you find an interface that you like, you should find out what level of customization is possible. You never know when application owners, database managers, support managers or even the CIO will ask you for their own custom dashboard with a specific view into the virtual infrastructure that shows only the statistics and analysis they need.
Most virtualization management tools offer a stock list of reports. These reports are generally useful, but you won't really know what reports you need until you have used an application for some time. Admins, application owners, consultants, developers and CIOs are likely at some point to need a custom report on what's happening in the virtual infrastructure. Be sure to ask the vendors you speak with what level of custom reporting they offer. Find out whether you can go into a custom report writer with a GUI interface and create your own custom virtual infrastructure reports.
Derived metrics are dynamically created from other metrics. For example, if you want to create a metric called "E-Commerce App Blended Utilization," it might be based on a formula derived from the CPU, memory, disk and network utilization across 50 or more servers running across multiple clusters — or even across a hybrid cloud. By calculating your own derived metric, based on other multiple dynamic metrics, you can look at a single number that represents many other, everchanging, statistics — which helps increase overall efficiency in your department.
A baseline is a picture in time of what's normal. For example, say that the utilization of your e-commerce web server farm averages 50 percent most days during the year. If you came in one morning and the utilization was at 80 percent, you would know that something was wrong and would want to check it out. On the other hand, say that you have a file transfer server that runs, on average, at 10 percent utilization. If you noticed it was at 50 percent utilization on a particular day, you would want to dig deeper to find out why it had deviated from it's baseline.
You need the baseline for what is normal to be able to tell when something is abnormal. Look for a virtualization management tool that can capture this baseline for you and alert you when performance deviates from that baseline.
Once you know what features to look for in your next virtualization management tool, you are ready for product analysis, in-house evaluation and deployment. It's good to go about your analysis in a methodical way so that all your needs are met:
Let's look at best practices for successful product selection and acquisition.
The first step in purchasing a virtualization management solution is to identify what products are currently available. New products are released all the time and many contain innovative features, designs and licensing models that can have an effect on your product selection plans. Take some time to learn which tools offer what features.
Keep in mind the characteristics to look for in a good virtualization software vendor:
In addition, be sure to consider the product features and capabilities that will best meet your needs:
There are a number of ways to find out about virtualization management products:
If your organization requires a request for proposal (RFP) process, be sure the vendors who have products you are most interested in submit a proposal. Large government and education bodies often require an RFP process for large IT purchases. With an RFP, you are likely to learn about some products or companies that you've never heard of — and if you discover a better solution than those you have been considering, then great!
It can be challenging to narrow down the list of vendors and products you are considering. It's actually a process that unfolds as you learn more. You may eliminate companies at any point during your product analysis. You may eliminate a vendor immediately because they simply aren't a good fit. You may learn something during a webinar or personal demo that informs your decision. Perhaps you won't know whether or not a product works for you until you evaluate it on your own virtual infrastructure. In addition, pricing may be a reason to eliminate a vendor.
If you have concerns about your budget, you can use pricing as an up front way to help narrow down products and vendors. However, be sure that you consider the long-term value of the product when looking at pricing because the lowest cost solution is not always the best solution.
Take plenty of time to learn more about the vendors on your list as well as their product offerings. Check out each vendor's website or review third-party analysis reports, which may be available on the web elsewhere. In most cases, webinars or online product demos can provide the most useful information about virtualization management solutions.
Many vendors hold regular online public demos of their product. These webinars are a great way to get an overview of the company, learn about the product, find out how it stacks up against your product selection criteria, see how the interface looks and even determine if the people giving the demo are likable.
Another great way to learn more about software products is to ask vendors for a personal online product demo. During an online webinar, you can certainly ask questions, but a personal demo will be directed toward your organization's specific pain points. An online personal product demo can be much more efficient than performing an evaluation of the software for yourself. The vendor's lab environment will be uniquely configured to demo the product's features and may be larger than the lab environment available at your company.
Sometimes a local VAR or a presales engineer from the software vendor can come to your location to give you an in-person presentation and product demonstration. While it might take the most time, an in-person meeting will give you the greatest opportunity to get to know the product and the people who represent it.
To save time and resources, it's a good idea to narrow down your product list to two or three solutions, if possible, before you conduct your own in-house evaluations. With two or three products on your list, you could install them one at a time to evaluate or run them side by side if you have the resources, time and capabilities to multitask your evaluation. It's important to use them firsthand, in your own infrastructure and on your own schedule.
More elaborate evaluations are sometimes called a "proof of concept." The proof of concept (POC) takes the evaluation to another level by attaching a specific time schedule and set of features and benefits that must be proven during that time. For example, a POC for a virtualization management tool that offers optimization might need to prove that the tool can recoup enough resources (through reclamation of currently wasted resources) to pay for itself. Another POC might require the product to scale to manage 3,000 virtual machines with the recommended sizing for that level of scale. Typically, the POC process is either run by or conducted by an engineer from a VAR or the software vendor. The engineer is well-versed in the product and understands what needs to be proven, runs the tests, documents the results and presents the findings.
Some vendors offer generous evaluation periods up to 60 or 90 days. Be sure to take advantage of this time prior to your purchase to make sure that, after some period of time, you still see the same value in the product that you saw from the outset.
Remember — you can obtain the pricing for a product at any time during your product analysis and research and use that as a way to eliminate certain products that are beyond the scope of your budget. There are a few things to keep in mind when evaluating the price of a virtualization management tool.
Make sure you understand the vendor's licensing model — per-VM or per-socket. Some vendors give you the option to choose. One or the other will likely be more beneficial for your company, depending on your infrastructure design and consolidation ratio.
Software products are usually available for direct purchase from the software vendor, from a specialty distributor, or from a national or local VAR. You can obtain prices from any — or all — of these sources. You might even talk to multiple VARs because pricing will vary.
Different vendors may formulate their pricing in different ways. Specific part numbers, different quantities, and suites or bundles can be used to generate a quote, so make sure the pricing you receive from each vendor is based on the same parameters.
Be sure to take a close look at the cost of support and maintenance.
Support is the help you receive when you have trouble with the software.
Many vendors offer tiered support with different response levels that are priced accordingly — for example, a Gold tier with a four-hour response time, Silver tier with an eight-hour response time and Bronze tier with a 24-hour response time. Software maintenance refers to periodic update packages and major upgrades to the application. A software maintenance package can be beneficial because it ensures that you always have the latest version and don't have to pay to upgrade. Be sure to clarify this with the vendor, however, and make sure you have the details of the maintenance package in writing. Ongoing support and maintenance of a software application can, if tallied over two or three years, easily surpass the original cost of the application, so it's important to compare these costs along with the cost of the applications you are considering.
Remember — all software purchases are up for negotiation. Software is a high-margin product. Once the software is created, there is almost no additional cost for the software vendor to reproduce and resell it to someone else. Enterprise software is usually priced very high with the assumption that the companies purchasing it are large enterprises with million-dollar IT budgets. Be sure to spend time price shopping and negotiating a discount before actually buying your virtualization management software — it could save your company significant amounts of money.
In addition, regardless of the discount you receive on the software cost, you should also ask the vendor or VAR for complementary training classes or assistance with implementing the product.
Vendors are always willing to negotiate a greater discount for a larger purchase. So if you also need new server hardware, desktop hardware, a network upgrade or any other technology products, it might be a good idea to make those purchases at the same time and negotiate a larger discount. Also remember that software vendors and VARs report their sales and profits quarterly and yearly — which may or may not sync with the calendar year. Vendors are likely to be willing to negotiate a larger discount when you are making your purchase just before their quarter- or yearend results are calculated to ensure that their reported sales are as large as possible.
When it comes to purchasing software, even your payment terms may be up for negotiation. For example, you may be able to get a 90-day evaluation period and a 90-day term to pay for it, allowing you to use the software application for half of a year before fully paying it off.
In some cases, the deployment of your virtualization management solution can be done during the evaluation or proof of concept period. However, in larger-scale deployments, the deployment process will be much more complex and requires more time for planning, design, deployment and training.
Before any software deployment, you need to make sure that your organization meets the system requirements of the application. Make sure that your server hardware, storage hardware, server OS, database and administrative interface will enable you to successfully deploy and run the virtualization management tool to its optimum capabilities.
Most enterprise-grade virtualization management tools will have design and sizing guides. These guides will help you match your management requirements (usually based on the number of sites, hosts and virtual machines) with the size of the virtualization management tool infrastructure required.
For example, to manage 100 hosts and 3,000 virtual machines, you may need two virtual machines (one for the database and one for the management application), each with 8 GB of vRAM and four vCPUs configured. On the other hand, for a smaller installation that monitors just 10 hosts and 300 virtual machines, you might be able to monitor it with a single virtual machine with just 8 GB of vRAM and two vCPUs.
Consult your application's design and sizing guide, your VAR or your deployment engineer for advice on how to size the resources needed for your deployment.
The deployment of your virtualization management application may be as limited as a simple, one-time installation or as large as a multisite installation and rollout over many months. Your deployment will vary based on the size of your infrastructure and the complexity of the integrations that your management application will access.
It's a good idea to consult experienced engineers from the VAR or software vendor to ensure that your deployment goes as smooth as possible.
One of the often forgotten aspects of any new application deployment is training. Anyone who uses the application should be considered for training. Many software vendors offer training for their virtualization management applications. For popular products, you may find off-the-shelf training textbooks, low-cost video trainings and even blog content from experienced users.
It's also important to conduct a post-deployment review for your new software. After 30 days, ask these questions:
Ask these questions after the first 30 days as well as on a quarterly and yearly basis to ensure that your ROI is being achieved as planned.
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