March 17, 2010

The Challenges of Managing Virtualized Server Environments

  • An Analysis by Jim Metzler
  • Ashton, Metzler & Associates

Virtualization is currently one of the hottest topics in the information technology (IT) field and it is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. While virtualization is important to virtually all IT organizations, it certainly isn't new. IT organizations have been implementing virtualized technologies such as Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) and virtual private networks (VPNs) for at least twenty years. In recent years, many network hardware vendors have virtualized technologies that had previously been deployed as dedicated hardware devices and placed the virtualized instances of these technologies into routers and switches.

In the context of virtualization, almost every component of IT systems can be virtualized. This includes:
  • Servers
  • Desktops
  • Applications
  • Wide Area Networks
  • Local Area Networks
  • Storage
  • Appliances such as WAN optimization controllers, application delivery controllers and firewalls

Virtualization enables IT organizations to get better control over IT resources, reduce the cost of network equipment and also reduce the organization's power and space requirements. In addition to the many benefits provided by virtualization itself, virtualization is often associated with cloud computing. There is no universal definition that identifies the characteristics of a cloud computing solution. Virtualization, however, is closely linked with cloud computing because most cloud computing solutions involve one or more forms of virtualization, with server virtualization being the most common form.

As will be discussed in this paper, in a virtual data center environment there is still a physical IT infrastructure that is comprised of devices such as servers, LAN switches and firewalls. As such, IT organizations still have the same traditional management challenges with these devices that they have always had; e.g., application discovery, baselining, application profiling and response time analysis, troubleshooting, etc. IT organizations also have the same traditional management challenges inside of a virtualized server, as they now have the requirement to manage virtual machines (VMs), virtual switches and virtual appliances such as firewalls. In addition, IT organizations have some new management challenges such as those that are created by the ability to dynamically move a virtual machine from one physical server to another.

This paper will explore the application and service delivery management challenges created by server virtualization. It will also describe how the IT organization must deploy management functionality inside of a virtualized server in order to regain the visibility that was lost due to virtualization.

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This is a superb analysis by a member of our Webtorials Analyst Division, Jim Metzler. With the rapid proliferation of visualization in general and virtualized servers in particular, there are myriad accompanying management challenges.

Jim addresses these management challenges by first explaining virtualized server architectures. He then examines both the traditional management issues in a virtualized environment and the new challenges introduced by virtualization.

I have a few questions for Jim, and I encourage all of you to join the discussion.

I'll start with this one.

Has the interest in server virtualization peaked or do you expect to see more of it?

The interest in implementing virtualized servers has not peaked. That said, I think that the rate of adoption will slow down a bit. It will slow down in part because IT organizations have already placed the 'low hanging fruit' onto virtual machines. By that I mean applications such as development and testing. They are not feeling out what else they can run on a VM. It will also slow down a bit because of some of the management issues that you raised in some of your other questions.

What do you see as some of the management challenges associated with virtualized servers?

The challenge that gets a lot of discussion is that in a traditional environment the IT organization gets management data on the traffic between servers from the LAN switch that interconnects the servers. One way to solve this problem is through implementing a virtual agent or probe. Another approach is to implement Cisco's 1000v.

Another huge issue is that you now have a switch inside of a server. Who administers this switch? The networking folks? The server folks? Similar questions will get asked many times in the next few years as we are on the cusp of the convergence of switching and servers.

What would you say is the single biggest challenge associated with managing virtualized servers?

One of the many things that I am recovering from is Mathematics. A particularly appealing mathematical concept is a fractal. A fractal is a geometric object that is similar to itself on all scales. If you zoom in on a fractal object it will look similar or exactly like the original shape. This property is often referred to as self-similarity.

The relevance of fractals is that the traditional data center is comprised of myriad physical devices including servers, LAN switches and firewalls. The virtualized data centers that most IT organizations are in the process of implementing are still comprised of physical servers, LAN switches and firewalls. In addition, these data centers house virtualized servers which themselves are comprised of myriad virtualized devices including virtual machines, a virtual LAN switch and in many cases virtual firewalls.

The bottom line is that IT organizations need to do all of the same management functions as a VM level (i.e., discovery, capacity planning, troubleshooting) that they historically have done a the physical server level.

Is there anything else that IT organizations should be aware of relative to the ongoing implementation of virtualized servers?

Steve, one of the jokes that I tell on my seminars is that I am the director of IT and I go to my boss and say "Boss, good news, bad news." My boss says, "Gee Jim, what's the good news?" To which I say "Well, I implemented virtualized servers and I also implemented VMotion. As a result, I can now move a virtual machine between data centers in well under a second." My boss is impressed and says "Jim, that's great. What's the bad news?". To which I say "Unfortunately it takess me a week and half to reconfigure the rest of the infrastructure."

The reality is that compute resources are becoming dynamic but the rest of the infrastructure is static. Until the rest of the infrastructure becomes dynamic, the benefit of moving servers between data centers will be marginal.

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