Installation of Lab Manager is a complex task that has the feel of heavy enterprise. VMLogix and Surgient were also difficult to install and configure, but VMware requires a three-step process: first ESX 4, then VMware vCenter, and finally Lab Manager. vCenter already contains many management features; however, Lab Manager adds capabilities that greatly facilitate the configuration and deployment of transient systems.

Prior to the advent of vCenter, Lab Manager managed the hosts directly. Today, it goes primarily through vCenter. This step enables admins to see a correct image of their systems from the vCenter console. Lab Manager does install an agent on the ESX hosts that routes the VM consoles to Lab Manager, where they are accessible via RDP and SSH.

Lab Manager has a SOAP interface, which enables sites to provision virtual machines via web services. (This is in addition to the SOAP interface in VMware ESX, which provides the ability to perform a variety of administrative tasks.) Lab Manager's SOAP access enables QA and development staff to create and run VMs on the fly during testing runs, a unique and valuable benefit.

Another salient feature of Lab Manager is that, like VMLogix, it can enable complex, multihomed VMs that attach to multiple networks (including a bridge to the outside net) via multiple virtual NICs.

Lab Manager also provides a unique configuration switch that forces a CPU to emulate 32-bit architecture, even if it is a 64-bit processor. This enables backward compatibility with some applications and early versions of some Linux distributions, reinforcing VMware's reputation for being able to run an enormous swath of legacy systems.

VMware's approach to licence monitoring and user management is different from the other vendors, and in my opinion, vCenter Lab Manager 4.0 trails the other products reviewed here. VMware's entire management layer for users and licences consists of limiting permissions of users and user roles. While VMLogix and Surgient enable you to enforce a maximum number of machines that use a given software licence (VMLogix takes this one step further by having hard and soft limits), VMware attempts to reach the same ends by limiting who can create virtual machines. At that point, it's up to those individuals to monitor their own license deployments. I find this to be a distinct shortcoming.

Lab Manager also lacks the scheduling layer found in Surgient (as does VMLogix). In this sense, Lab Manager gives the impression of being more of a lab tool than an IT-oriented product, that is, it hews closely to its origins as a development and test solution.

OUR VERDICT

VMware is the least expensive product in this review. To its cost must be added the price of vCenter. However, for sites that have already committed to VMware's products and invested in vCenter, the good pricing and the natural product fit make it a highly attractive option.