vCenter Operations Manager: VMware's move into cloud monitoring?

On the eve of VMworld 2012 and with VMware making serious moves into platform as a service, a VMware-based cloud-monitoring product seems inevitable. So, what's really behind the push for customers to adopt its VM-monitoring tool, vCenter Operations 5.0?
Written by Archie Hendryx Hendryx, Contributor

Is VMware slowly becoming the new Oracle? That was the question being asked after the backlash to its initial vRAM licensing model at the launch of vSphere 5. VMware's somewhat quick retraction helped ensure any unsavoury Larry Ellison comparisons were quickly put to bed.

Despite that incident, it was still a signal of intent and an indication of VMware's recognition of its ever-growing clout. With VMworld 2012 fast approaching and VMware making serious manoeuvres into platform as a service (PaaS), a VMware-based cloud-monitoring product is a must.

So with that need in mind, what is to be made of the huge marketing push for customers to adopt its virtual-machine monitoring tool, vCenter Operations 5.0?

When VMware was only considered ideal for virtualising test and development environments, the native alarms and performance graphs of the then termed Virtual Center were more than adequate for general monitoring purposes.

As the vSphere revolution began with the average customer having VMs numbering in the hundreds, VMware allowed a plethora of third-party performance and capacity tools to plug into vCenter via its software development kit.

Suddenly, every subsequent VMworld trade show grew not just by the number of attendees but by the number of VM-monitoring companies and tools, such as VKernel vOPS, Veeam Monitor, VMTurbo Operations Manager, Quest vFoglight and Xanagti VDI to name just a few.

So, when in February 2011 VMware eventually did enter the monitoring market with the purchase of Integrien's Alive and its later relaunch and rebranding as vCenter Operations Manager, there wasn't anything majorly distinctive between what were already mature and in most cases cheaper solutions.

More than a year later, a huge marketing campaign and a revamped version, vCenter Operations 5.0 is slowly gaining traction among end users as the VM monitoring tool of choice. But how much of that perception is related to its actual capabilities as opposed to VMware driving an agenda to monopolise a market segment that is clearly profitable?

To answer this, the first thing to do is to assess whether there is a need for such a tool, whether it's any good and what distinction, if any does it bring from the competition?

The truth is that anyone who has had to troubleshoot a VMware environment, or gauge the capacity or performance, regardless of the size of the infrastructure, will testify that the default tools are simply not sufficient.

Add the factor that more and more business-critical applications are now virtualised with virtual environments growing at an immense rate, then an enterprise-grade performance, capacity and monitoring tool is a necessity.

So looking at the vCenter Operations Manager vApp (VCOPs), the first thing to note is that it collects data not only from VMware's vCenter Server but also from vCenter Configuration Manager as well as third-party data sources such as SNMP.

This collected data is then processed by the vCenter Operations Manager, Analytics VM, which presents the results through the rather colourful-looking GUI. Compared with its predecessor, the most notable change with the VCOPs 5.0 GUI is its integration with vCenter's navigation and inventory pane.

This small yet effective change makes it look much more like a VMware product as opposed to the bolt-on appearance that both Integrien and previous VCOPs versions possessed.

Using the themes or badges of Health, Risk and Efficiency, the GUI organises the view of an entire infrastructure onto a main dashboard that can be drilled down to root causes and further details.

Utilising a green, yellow, red scheme where green means good and red is bad, the badges are a quick indication of areas of concern or that require investigating. By seeing something as red, a couple of clicks and simple drill down will show you the relevant VMs and their affected hosts as well as any shared or affected datastores.

Furthermore each badge carries a score where a high number is good for the Health and Efficiency badges but potentially detrimental for the Risk badge, as a low risk is optimum for your environment. All these features enable quicker troubleshooting in large VM environments because issues can be quickly pinpointed from a very high-level view down to the granular detail in just seconds.

The Health badge identifies current problems in the system and highlights issues that require immediate resolution. Using a heatmap, the end user has a quick health overview of all parent and child objects such as virtual machines and hosts that can also be rewound by up to six hours to track back trends.

The Risk badge uses data based on infrastructure stress, time and capacity remaining to assess risk. It also identifies potential issues that could affect the infrastructure's performance and can also be trended back to seven days' worth of data.

Finally, the Efficiency Badge, which takes advantage of the now integrated CapacityIQ tool, is used for capacity planning where CPU, memory and disk space resource metrics are referred to for identifying overprovisioned, under-utilised or optimally-resourced VMs.

As well as the Badges and their drill-down details, VCOPs also has several menu tabs such as Operations, Planning, Alerts, Analysis, and Reports. Of most interest in the Operations tab is the Environmental section, where a visual representation of objects such as the associated vCenter Server, datacentres, datastores, hosts, and virtual machines are presented alongside their scores and relationship.

This is an excellent feature that enables the end user to drill down quickly, identify and investigate more granular objects of concern and their health status. The Planning section also contains a very useful summary section that provides a visual overview in graphs and tables of capacity for any selected object enabling you to switch easily between deployed and remaining capacity.

Here VCOPs provides the ability to have extended forecasts of remaining capacity for up to several months, an essential value-add especially as environments grow at such a radical pace.

In addition to the capacity planning and forecasting features, it's also good to see VCOPs incorporate what-if scenarios. Now becoming common among several VM monitoring tools, what-if scenarios are a useful addition to any VM environment especially as they allow you to foresee the impact on capacity and workload on your virtual environment before making any actual changes.

Finally, the area in which VCOPs really stands out from the competition, is its new vCenter Infrastructure Navigator feature. Monitoring software that looks at the performance of applications as opposed to just their infrastructure is far more useful to any business. VMware's vCenter Infrastructure Navigator has been introduced to discover application services automatically and map their dependencies and relationships.

One of the main benefits of having a knowledge of the application and virtual infrastructure's interdependencies is that it will immediately help reduce MTTR by either eliminating or implicating the infrastructure as a cause of application slowdowns.

Furthermore, as key applications and their underlying infrastructure are constantly identified and monitored, the end user can quickly ensure the right level of resources are allocated and that priority is given to those VMs that actually need it.

When you put this ability in the context of disaster recovery and more specifically VMware's latest version of Site Recovery Manager, end users now have the opportunity to create recovery plans and protection groups that are aligned to the applications that reside on their VCOPs monitored VMs.

This is a far cry from the competition whose equivalent disaster recovery products still don't allow you to failback automatically or even failover multiple VMs simultaneously.

Using VCOPs' metrics and mapping of application interdependencies with VMs and underlying hosts, the level of sophistication in disaster-recovery planning is raised significantly in that it's now related to what matters to the business most, namely the apps.

So while this all sounds great, does VCOPs really spell the end of other VM monitoring tools and a consequent reduction of third-party stalls and their scantily clad glamour models at VMworld? Does it really constitute a comprehensive cloud-monitoring product?

At present, probably not. VCOPs is still more expensive than most of its competitors with a per-VM pricing model and still has some limitations, most significantly its inability to monitor physical servers in the same way it monitors VMs.

It also has to gain a market share by going against already popular and seasoned products that already have end users and champions. In saying that, this is VCOPs 5 and is merely the beginning.

Looking first at the price challenge, VCOPs is software and indeed it would be foolhardy not to expect the pricing model to change and become more attractive to new customers or even bundled in with new hypervisor purchases.

When looking at the bigger picture, VMware is clearly focusing further up the stack with a PaaS offering and it would also be short-sighted to think VMware only see VCOPs as a single entity product that just monitors the infrastructure.

If anything it's an investment to what will be an integral component to a comprehensive cloud-monitoring package that enables successful migrations to VMware's PaaS offerings. In such a scenario it would be ideal for VMware to have a PaaS offering that was already built on IaaS monitoring, management and orchestration software that it has itself developed.

Furthermore, if the next version of VCOPs or the package that it comes with include the ability to monitor analytics that incorporate physical blades, we could well have an integrated monitoring tool that's impossible to compete with.

Just imagine being able to run a what-if scenario on a physical blade prior to virtualising it onto a VM so that you're able to size up the resources accurately not based just on current metrics but also analysed and predicted growth?

So taking a step back and looking at the whole VMware portfolio it seems that the heavy investment and marketing of VCOPs is more a ploy of eventually tying in many of their separate products as a single comprehensive management, orchestration and cloud-monitoring package that is managed singlehandedly via the vCenter interface.

Currently, VMware is littered with lots of separate tools that include vCloud Director and vCenter Chargeback Manager. But if they were fully integrated with VCOPs they would make a tasty introduction package to those looking to deploy a private cloud.

Then there's VMware's Hyperic, which has the ability to close the aforementioned physical gap as it can monitor the physical environment underlying vSphere, hence providing performance management of applications in both physical and virtual environments.

Therefore it's not impossible even today for a cloud infrastructure's components to be monitored with a bolted-together Hyperic and VCOPs approach, with Hyperic monitoring the applications and the processes running on vCloud Director, which in turn is conveyed to VCOPs which is monitoring the VMs and consequently other components such as vShield Manager.

But for VMware to be successful in PaaS, it needs to enter and engage with a market segment to which it has had little exposure — the application owners. Looking at VMware's vFabric Application Performance Manager driven by AppInsight as part of a fully integrated package of VCOPs, vCloud Director and Hyperic, could be the key that opens the door to application owners.

It would also provide VMware a true cloud-monitoring product that could provide real-time visibility and control from application to infrastructure via a single management interface.

Ultimately, creating such as product requires a lot of development work and effort from VMware and will eventually bring it into competition with a new breed of vendors that specialise in cloud management and monitoring.

The point is, as good as VCOPs is and as good as the competitors are, it's important not to get blinkered and avoid the bigger picture of what VCOPs may eventually become part of.

Either way VCOPs' current competitors need to up their game quickly or find alternative features. To survive in this game it's clear you're either big or niche.

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