IT departments have to simultaneously support additional capacity and services while decreasing overall operational costs, writes Ulrich Weigel, EMEA director of security management practice at NetIQ.

Although these requirements are at odds, server virtualisation technology can help meet these goals. With primary advantages including cost savings and increased hardware resource utilisation, the decision to virtualise is an easy one. As with most technologies, however, there are potential drawbacks and management issues. In some cases, organisations can simply apply the same best practices  they have defined for physical machines. In other cases, virtualisation raises new issues.
The benefits of virtualisation and the ways in which it can help simplify IT operations come at the cost of various management-related challenges.
Some ssues that must be addressed when supporting a virtualised infrastructure:
* Virtual machine sprawl: Organisations that start to support virtualisation technology quickly find themselves supporting large numbers of virtual machines throughout the environment. As end-users and systems administrators can quickly and easily create new virtual machines, IT teams often find themselves supporting hundreds of new OS instances. Keeping track of these virtual machines and ensuring that they meet IT standards is a difficult task;
* Heterogeneous environments: A helpful benefit of using virtual machines is the ability to deploy many types of OS platforms and environments. Although this can help support legacy workloads, it forces IT departments to support a much broader variety of systems. IT teams need the tools and expertise to make sure that all their guest OSs are properly secured and configured; and
* Lack of IT management: The process of deploying new physical machines involves numerous steps, including purchasing hardware and physically deploying the systems into a production data centre. These steps help ensure that IT experts are involved in production deployments. New virtual machines, however, can be created and deployed within a matter of minutes. Often, new virtual machines are deployed without IT oversight. The end result is a proliferation of systems that might not meet IT security policies and management best practices.
Effective deployment is crucial to successful virtualisation management. One approach is to move existing workloads into a virtual machine, a process commonly referred to as a physical-to-virtual (P2V) conversion. The other option is to create new virtual machines into which applications and services are installed. Regardless of the approach, organisations need to keep several management aspects in mind.
* Capacity planning: To meet business and technical requirements, IT departments must be able to determine their current and future infrastructure needs. Details include determining how many applications can be supported given the current hardware configuration and planning for future purchases. As each service or application will have unique hardware resource requirements, performance characteristics must also be considered. Even in small environments, this information can be difficult to manage manually; and
* Determining optimal virtual machine placement: When deploying virtual machines, organisations must be able to identify which host systems are the most appropriate targets. When system resources are under-utilised, organisations will leave potential capacity untapped. However, systems that are over-utilised will likely result in performance or availability problems. The goal is to combine workloads based on “compatible” resource requirements. For example, a CPU-intensive workload should be combined with one that primarily requires disk or network resources.
The focus here has been on identifying virtualisation management challenges and providing some best-practice recommendations for addressing those issues. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for IT employees to implement these practices manually. The numbers and types of systems that are supported can be varied, diverse and large in scope and number. And the issue of virtual machine sprawl can make monitoring and configuring these systems all but impossible.
Furthermore, IT employees must have detailed knowledge and expertise of all the systems they manage in order to meet organisations’ requirements.
Ultimately, all these challenges lead to the necessity of an enterprise-aware virtualisation management platform, designed to meet the needs of organisations that support both virtual and physical machines. Companies that implement a solution designed to provide a best-practice approach to managing virtualisation while simplifying many of the most difficult tasks will realise the benefits of virtual machine technology while minimising administrative costs and overhead.
* NetIQ is distributed and supported in South Africa by 10Net ICT Solutions.