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The Virtualization Automation Journey

Welcome to Virtualization and Beyond

The Virtualization Automation Journey

By Michael Thompson, Director, Systems Management Product Marketing, SolarWinds

Virtualization in the data center is a default configuration. In fact, we have passed the point where over half of server workloads are virtualized and it is predicted to reach 86 percent by 2016. However, while this indicates most organizations have started down the virtualization path, that doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls to carefully avoid and best practices to implement in each of the three phases of what can be called the virtualization journey towards maximizing what virtualization can do for your business.

Let's take a closer look at each of these phases as well as the common challenges to look out for.

Initial Implementation

Getting started with virtualization isn't much of an obstacle for most companies these days. With an abundance of people with virtualization skills and the amount of educational content available to a typical system administrator, all that is really needed to get going is a purchase order. But while it may be easy to start implementing, this phase is also one that can be the hardest to get passed.

Why? Since it seems so easy to create and do basic management of VMs, one of the key pitfalls is to enter this stage without a plan. And without a well thought out set of guidelines, procedures, golden images and maintenance and monitoring plans at the onset, you can get caught in the vicious cycle of continuously addressing fire drills that take up your time to the point where any proactive optimization gets squeezed out.

The best time to think through how you want to manage and monitor the entire VM lifecycle is when you are just getting started. Of course, you will learn and adjust based on your experience, but it is still much better to be adjusting from a set of baseline policies as opposed to trying to reign in a situation where everyone has taken a unique approach.

This is where getting the right data can be the difference between success and failure. Being able to monitor and manage virtualization-related problems before they impact systems, seeing configuration problems and identifying resource allocation mismatches can largely depend on the ability to readily get the appropriate information on a real-time basis. So, make sure part of you plan is having a system to get that data.

Optimization

After surviving the initial phase of implementation and achieving a virtual environment that is operating in a relatively stable state, the next phase is to work on optimizing the virtual infrastructure. This can be optimization across multiple dimensions, including hardware and software utilization, application performance or staff efficiency. In this phase, capacity planning, VM sprawl management and a broader view of alignment with other domains becomes critical.

Managing VM sprawl is one of the most basic optimization strategies and is all about reclaiming resources that are currently being wasted. A key best practice to managing sprawl  is  having a system to regularly scan the virtual environment for orphaned or abandoned VMs and snapshots, as well as leveraging historical data to determine if the resources (e.g., vCPU or memory) allocated to each VM are appropriate for the workload.

At a more macro level, application performance optimization can be done by looking at the application stack from the application through the virtualization infrastructure then down to storage hardware. Are business performance-critical applications running on VMs aligned to host and datastore resources that will prevent bottlenecks? If IOPs is key, are those applications and their datastores leveraging any higher performance storage arrays?

While this seems like common sense, it can be difficult to understand all the relationships and to maintain resource alignment in a very dynamic environment, so this must all be carefully evaluated

Automation

The current culminating phase in the virtualization maturity process is to automate your virtual environment. Companies that have been successful with automation typically start with a strong foundation of workflows, best practices and policies that are already well documented and tested. In this case, automation can drive speed and agility that can really begin to distinguish IT services and business results from those of competitors.

Based on this foundation, a typical automation progression would be:

  1. Instrument the environment: Automation is only as good as the data provided as input.
  2. Baseline: There is always a need to identify trends and determine what is normal.
  3. Semi-automate: As an intermediate step, many companies choose to set up automation, but have an administrator "push a button" before kicking off the action to provide an extra layer of insurance that the automation will do the right things before turning the decision over to a machine.
  4. Fully automate.

As this sequence can involve a lot of effort, focusing on applications that require a high level of speed and agility as opposed to attempting to implement automation across an entire environment will improve your success rate. Ensuring that the initial automation implementation is aimed at the highest ROI opportunity can also help get business buy-in for automating the next application.

Wherever you are in the virtualization automation journey, there is value in moving to the next step. If you are stuck at any one stage, the good news is that you certainly don't have to blaze a new path to get to the next level. Given the maturity of the server virtualization market, there are a lot of tools and resources available to help get where you are going, including best practices documentation, user groups and vendor-provided information.

Good luck! 

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Make sure to also read, "On-Premises versus Cloud-based Storage" , "Virtualization Security on the Front Lines" and "In the New Wild West of Storage, the Virt Admin is Sheriff

About the Author

Michael Thompson, Director, Systems Management Product Marketing, SolarWinds. 

Michael has worked in the IT management industry for more than 14 years, including leading product management teams and portfolios in the storage and virtualization/cloud spaces for IBM. He holds a master of business administration and a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.

Published Monday, August 24, 2015 6:55 AM by David Marshall
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