As we remarked a few months ago, this year has been described as the year of datacentre orchestration. Or at least, the next twelve months look set to see more concentration on the management of virtualised systems as much as the installation of same.

Vendors agree that products to help enterprises manage the burgeoning sprawl of virtual machines - so easy to provision, so hard to manage - are now starting to become pretty thick on the ground. And that market and technology growth has produced some unusual approaches to the process of VM management.

Dave Capuano, marketing manager for virtualisation management software startup Fortisphere, agrees that it's getting tough for end-users to figure out which management tools they need.

"It's a broad category so the market taxonomy is not well defined," he says. "For example, VMware organises its product set in terms of the organisation: there's one for test and development, another for pre-production and yet another for production use. We do it horizontally as we think the problem is about the life of the VM regardless of where it is."

Fortisphere, which describes itself as a "provider of virtual machine lifecycle management software" recently launched a product, Virtual Essentials, that CTO John Suit says can do away with the VM tracking spreadsheet. As he says in his blog, when you're managing VMs: "How are you going to tag and track your VMs and know who to contact when a dependency is broken? And, if you remember to update the spreadsheet, how are you going to know from which clones have been made and if they should be made to keep the same configuration as the parent?"

Suit reckons his company's product is the answer. What's different about the company's approach is that it provides visibility from within the VM. However, rather than rely on an operating system-dependent agent or other mechanism to provide a connection between the VM and the outside world, at the core of Fortisphere's product is a low-level driver embedded within the VM itself. This means it can do much more than an agent, according to Capuano.

"Our Inside Track technology is about managing a microkernel in the VM itself," he says. "When each VM is born, our technology is embedded in the VM. This gives visibility into that VM, its location, and what it's doing. This is good for inventory management and auditing for example. It means the IT manager gains control of the VM, such as who it can talk to, and which hypervisor it can bind to."

Other items that Capuano said the company's approach enables include a VM's lineage, whether it has been or is a clone, and licensing information from the software within it, which will then allow IT managers to contain configuration drift and enforce policies.

Some may cavil at the thought of a third-party piece of software sitting inside each VM. One of the key concerns is likely to be security. What happens if it gets hacked, or if bugs mean that every VM is compromised in some way? Suit is comfortable that the company has the answer to that one covered.

"Ours is an intermediate driver much like a sound driver," he says. It's a micro-kernelised device driver that's about one-twentieth the size the size of a standard agent. We spent six months working with Microsoft to get this right, which reassures our customers.

"And on the performance issue, we don't impact performance as much as any agent. We implement a virtual network but we're not chatty."

According to Suit, the technology works on both Linux and Microsoft platforms. "It works kind of like WMI," he says. "It can use the AD interface and just connect, so you can then do domain deployment and you don't have to restart the VM. On Linux we deploy via yum. It takes about two minutes to get into 1,500 VMs on 10-12 ESX Servers, for example."

Vendors are naturally keen to tout the advantages of their products so when asked why an IT manager might decide not to deploy the technology, Capuano deflects the focus away from the product. "Push-back comes when people are doing infrastructure upgrades to ESX 3.5 for example, and they don't have the resources to install this. They also have to have 100+ VMs in production to make it worthwhile."

We haven't tested this product, which sells for around US$10,000, nor have we yet seen it in action, though that might change at VMworld Europe, VMware's first European customer and developer event, on which we'll be reporting this week. But, if it lives up to its promises, this unusual technological approach could bring unique benefits.

As Mark Bowker, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, recently observed, Fortisphere's strength is its ability to manage virtual machines across multiple hypervisors, something end users are asking for as they deploy multiple server virtualisation platforms.

But the company's focus is fairly limited and, like many point solution developers, it would seem probable that, in the not too distant future, the company will be snapped up by one of the major players. It's a prospect that the company's founders and shareholders will no doubt relish - and customers might even benefit too. One to watch.

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