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Caption by: Alan Stevens
As virtualisation spreads, virtual machine management is rapidly becoming a real issue, especially where large numbers of physical and virtual machines are involved. Microsoft'solution is Virtual Machine Manager 2007 (VMM 2007), a recent addition to its System Center family of management tools, offering centralised setup, monitoring and management of virtual machines across multiple hosts.
It has taken Microsoft a while to get Virtual Machine Manager 2007 to market, and this first release doesn't offer all of the functionality originally planned. Most importantly, it's currently restricted to managing virtual machines hosted by the company's Virtual Server 2005 product. Support for Hyper-V deployments is expected to be added shortly after Microsoft's hypervisor is officially released in August 2008. The ability to manage VMware virtual machines is also scheduled to be included at that time, with support for XenServer VMs to follow a little later.
It would be wrong to assume that this first release of VMM 2007 is crippled in any way, however. It's a very functional and surprisingly usable piece of software that really does make managing large virtual machine farms much easier. Moreover, it's worth using it to manage Virtual Server 2005 VMs now, as compatibility at the VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) level means existing VMs can be simply moved across to Hyper-V servers in due course.
Virtual Machine Manager makes it easy to create, manage, migrate and run virtual machines across different physical hosts.
To get started you'll need at least one server running Windows Server 2003 or later, which is used to host the core VMM 2007 server process. A SQL Server database is also required, along with a library server to catalogue and centrally organise file-based resources such as VM settings, virtual hard disks, ISO images and other building blocks needed by virtual machines.
The VMM library is where all the building blocks needs to build and run virtual machines are stored.
On a large network, dedicated library and SQL Server hosts can be used, although the free SQL Server 2005 Express is also included and proved more than adequate for the small-business-focused Workgroup Edition we tested. This $499 edition is licensed for just five physical hosts, while larger companies will find VMM 2007 included in the System Center Server Management Suite Enterprise Edition (from $1,290) along with the Operations Manager, Configuration Manager and Data Protection Manager applications.
Depending on your setup, installation can be quite lengthy process. However, it's not particularly difficult and once installed everything can be administered from a central management console. This can either be run on one of the host servers or remotely, and has the same look and feel as other members of the recently revamped System Center family. Like those products, it's built on PowerShell, Microsoft's command-line shell, which means that anything you can do through the GUI can also be scripted. This is particularly useful for task automation, as you can even inspect — and use — the scripts the GUI generates to help with your own.
The console interface is well designed and owes a lot to Outlook. There's a central display panel, the contents of which are determined by choosing one of the views arranged to its left; tasks can be initiated via an 'Actions' panel on the right.
Virtual machines can be arranged by physical host or put into logical groups with an embedded live thumbnail display when a virtual machine is selected; tools alongside allow you to start/stop VMs, create checkpoints (snapshots), save states and so on. A dedicated remote control client can also be started from the console.
Existing hosts and their virtual machines can be added and managed directly from the VMM console if wanted, but to get the full benefit of what the application has to offer it's better to put them, and everything to do with VMs, into the VMM library. Add the templates also available via the library and creating new virtual machines becomes a quick and easy task that can be automated, with an optional Web-based portal to enable users to create and manage their own, if required.
An optional web portal enables users to provision and manage virtual machines for themselves.
Customisable templates and policies allow for tight control of self-service provisioning of virtual machines.
If a storage area network is detected, the VMM server will automatically route large virtual machine copies over the SAN for rapid deployment. The library can be used to centrally manage distributed resources for more efficient provisioning and management of virtual machines hosted on servers in remote locations.
An integrated P2V tool can be used to migrate physical systems to virtual machines.
An integrated physical-to-virtual (P2V) tool is another useful feature, making it easy to migrate existing servers to the virtual world. There's also a virtual-to-virtual (V2V) migration tool that can, similarly, be kicked off from the central management console.
Although they have to be stopped first, virtual machines can be migrated from one host to another with a star rating used to help optimise workloads.
By far the neatest option, however, is the ability to move VMs between hosts — to keep them running during routine maintenance, for example, or to better balance server loads. On the downside, you can't dynamically allocate resources to virtual machines, or migrate virtual machines while they're running, as you can with rival XenServer and VMware platforms. However, we found migration to be a fairly quick and seamless process, and the VMM server will check to see if a host is properly equipped to handle a workload before it's migrated. There's even a customisable star rating to help you decide whether a target server is up to the job or not.
Tightly controlled delegated management via Active Directory is another key feature, together with comprehensive monitoring and reporting tools. However, the latter are only fully available when you deploy the virtualisation management pack for use with Operations Manager 2007.
We had very few problems putting Virtual Machine Manager 2007 through its paces and were impressed with Microsoft's first offering in this area. The next release, with its ability to manage Hyper-V and non-Microsoft platforms, should be even better and is likely to be a must-have for anyone concerned about VM sprawl.
Caption by: Alan Stevens