As enterprises begin to pack multiple software instances into a handful of machines, a new layer of management complexity is starting to emerge. An Ottawa startup is among those promising a cure

VMworld highlights IT challenges of virtual sprawl

SAN FRANCISCO – One of the most significant challenges faced by companies attending this year’s VMworld has been managing virtualized IT environments.

With server virtualization allowing organizations to quickly provision virtual machines within a matter of minutes, the problem called “virtual sprawl” is occurring where companies are finding it very complex to handle the influx of created VMs. This presents a problem where, even though the amount of physical servers may drop with virtualization, the number of VMs is actually increasing.

“You now have all of this portability,” Greg Smith, director of dynamic services for T-Systems, said. “So in a way, by bringing in virtualization you’ve actually made your world more complex because you have a lot more variables, so now you need much more standardized procedures in dealing with that.”

Sandeep Thakur, director of information services at Medavant Healthcare Solutions, said that IT managers need to be mindful of their underlying architecture in order to control the deployment of VMs. And they must do this, he said, while managing the demands from the rest of the organization.

“In our environment, the biggest challenge has been that people have caught on to virtualization so much that everybody wants their own machine,” Thakur said. “So, we have to manage the virtual machines and the underlying architecture of the storage and network and really try to make sure we stop the spawning of virtual machines from going beyond what we can support in the underlying infrastructure.”

Ottawa-based startup Embotics is launching a VM life-cycle management tool called the V-Commander. The software identifies, traces, manages, and controls virtual machines within VMware’s Virtual Center environment.

“We’ve found that the point where the complexity of managing VMs starts to become a problem occurs anywhere between 200 and 400 VMs depending on their market vertical and how structured they are,” David Lynch, vice-president of marketing at Embotics, said. “The challenge with virtual machines is that they are virtual and almost anybody can deploy them. The protections and controls that many companies have in place for controlling servers are based on physical machines and now you have the ability to literally deploy a server in minutes and also to bypass a lot of those physical controls, so management becomes an issue.”

V-Commander displays the genealogy of any VM in real time, making it simple to patch, configure, manage and rollback all related VMs. The product also uses markers and policies to control deployment and automate most control tasks for IT managers.

“Every VM we log into the repository and every copy we log out is attached with an ID very similar to an RFID tag,” Lynch said. “What that does is it enables us to track it, easily recognize when we see it again, and also it also enables us to attach some methodized attacks to it that we can then use to actually enforce policy and control. And this is important, because a VM’s lifecycle can last from literally minutes to years and this is another variant that you don’t have on the physical server side.”

Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron, said that virtual infrastructure management is crucially important for companies utilizing virtualization. However, he cautioned against the influx of new virtual management tools starting to hit the market.

“You’re going to see hundreds of companies that claim to be in the management business,” Grandinetti said. “But if you talk to the analysts, they’ll tell you that it’s really difficult for a company that’s not already building the server virtualization services layer to have a credible virtual infrastructure management offering.”

Virtual Iron’s Virtualization Manager provides enterprise-class, policy-driven automation and management. Embedded features such as LiveMigrate, LiveCapacity, LiveMaintenance, and LiveRecovery, all enable automated and dynamic resource management for companies trying to minimize server sprawl.

But according to Jean-Marc Seguin, chief architect at Embotics, users have no need to worry about his company’s youthful appearance.

“We’ve demoed most of our policy engine system with XenSource and Virtual Iron, so we came at it from our original heritage where we were building the policy engines that lived within the hypervisor and around the kernels to actually drive policy from hardware straight through to virtualization,” Seguin said. “We have patents in this space and we have a good understanding as to what it takes to actually control the layers of the virtual environment.”

And while Seguin admitted that a lot of products surrounding management elements are beginning to hit the market recently, he said that very few are really talking about policy control, oversight and auditing with virtual machines.

“If you look at some of the clients we’re dealing with such as financials, telcos, and hosted service providers,” Seguin said. “They’ve got some regulations put on them that are really stringent and we need to make sure that we have ways to show them that they holes have been closed.”

The V-Commander, which Embotics says has been in development for five years, is currently supported only in the VMware environment. However, the company expects the next generation of the product to be compatible with XenSource and Microsoft offerings.

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