Jeff Allison's company is considering desktop virtualisation, and that task will most likely fall on his shoulders.

In Allison's perfect world, however, he'd leave that to the desktop experts. But virtualisation has never been a perfect world, and it's even less so now that companies are implementing multiple vendors' virtualisation software.

As a network engineer with the Florida healthcare organisation Health First, Allison is charged with managing the virtual server infrastructure, and he'd like to keep it that way. He's all for desktop virtualisation; it's just that he'd much prefer the traditional keepers of the end-user machines oversee the project, thank you very much.

His reticence to take on the project is partly due to unfamiliarity with the desktop arena and partly due to the burden that comes along with managing and supporting PCs, Allison says.

Health First uses VMware server virtualisation and Citrix Systems desktop tools. The IT organisation could make the desktop virtualisation call in either vendor's favour. It has been conducting proof-of-concept tests of VMware View (formerly Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, or VDI) and Citrix XenDesktop.

Facing increasingly complicated scenarios

Indeed, the overall server hypervisor market is becoming rich with options, including Microsoft Hyper-V, Parallels Server for Macs, VMware ESX and Xen variants from companies such as Citrix, Oracle, Novell, Red Hat and Sun (although this last one may disappear, as essentially did the Virtual Iron hypervisor, once the Oracle acquisition closes).

These same vendors plus other, more specialised providers -- such as Neocleus, Phoenix Technologies and Virtual Computer -- have begun peppering the market with desktop virtualisation products or bare-metal client hypervisors.

That all adds up to a lot of choices for IT managers. In fact, research from Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) shows that the vast majority of enterprises already are grappling with the issue -- if not in production then in test and development environments.

In a mid-2008 survey of 627 enterprise IT executives at global companies of varying sizes, only seven percent of respondents said they had only one virtualisation supplier, says Andi Mann, an EMA research vice president. Survey respondents broke out as follows: 28% from a large enterprise, 37% from mid-sized to large company and 36% from an SMB.

And while a multivendor virtualisation environment can provide benefits such as lower costs and best-of-breed product selection, managing all this diversity can be a killer. At Health First, should the desktop virtualisation project proceed from testing to deployment, Allison expects to maintain a siloed management approach -- the virtual server infrastructure over here, the virtual desktop infrastructure over there and never the twain shall meet.

That's a tactic many will take, at least in the short term, to get over the immediate management hurdle. But as a best practice, IT staffers really ought to figure out a way to handle distinct virtualisation technologies in a cohesive way so they can provide as adaptable and flexible an infrastructure as possible, experts say.

One of the smartest moves an enterprise IT manager can make is to find a way to create processes for functions such as provisioning and monitoring that can be repeated across any hypervisor environment, says Matt Brooks, senior enterprise architect at Dell.

"If you don't, the risk is building up mini-infrastructures around each hypervisor, and that's really what we're trying to get away from with virtualisation," he says.

Brooks speaks from experience -- lots of it. Dell has a massive virtual infrastructure, currently comprising more than 6,200 virtual machines in a mixture of hypervisors split 60-40 between the test/dev and production environments.

"We see this as being a multi-hypervisor world, and although we'd like to have the fewest amount of hypervisors as possible, anything that enables us to optimise we're very happy about," he says. Brooks wouldn't specify which vendors' hypervisors Dell is using.

"We had so many different processes to manage in our physical environments, we really want to consolidate that down to build up same velocity in how we manage, deliver and monitor in the virtual environment," Brooks explains. "The key is looking for commonalities and making sure organizational and management practices, from a processes perspective, are repeatable," he says.

A single pane of glass

The right management tool is critical. "Skills for managing virtualisation are among the biggest inhibitors for deploying virtualisation technology. So the best advice I can give [enterprise IT organisations] is to look for toolsets that will manage across vendors," EMA's Mann says. Unfortunately, he adds, these aren't too common today.

"For the most part, virtualisation management and virtual system management tend to focus on VMware. That's fair, since it's an 89% market leader at the moment. But I'm seeing adoption of Hyper-V and Xen in many enterprises," Mann says.

Citing the mid-2008 survey, he says more than 30% of respondents planned on bringing Hyper-V into their IT infrastructures and upwards of 40% planned on adopting one Xen hypervisor or another.

VMware, for its part, has a sophisticated management toolset, but it's focused on its own hypervisor. The company says it has not seen the need among its customers for management of multiple hypervisors in a production environment, a company spokeswoman said. As such, its development resources are best spent at this point on providing more value for vSphere, according to Bogomil Balansky, senior director of product marketing.

VMware does, however, coordinate with vendors of management tools used for managing physical servers. It shares APIs and has a plug-in architecture that aims to provide "seamless" management of the physical with the virtual, the spokeswoman added.

Such a coordinated view is highly desirable among enterprise IT managers, says Stephen Elliot, vice president of strategy for CA's Infrastructure Management and Automation business unit. That was among the findings of a study conducted in December 2008 and released late last month by the IT Process Institute.

Jointly sponsored by CA and VMware, the study collected data from 323 North American IT organisations.

"A lot of customers are recognising that virtualisation is great, and works wonders, but certain environments will not be virtualised and so they need to figure out how to manage and automate both worlds together," Elliot says.

Microsoft, on the other hand, provides cross-platform and heterogeneous management tools in its System Center Virtual Machine Manager. "That's unusual, but very positive," EMA's Mann says.

Today, Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) can manage the Microsoft Hyper-V and Virtual Server hypervisors plus VMware's ESX and ESXi hypervisors through integration with VMware vCenter Server (formerly Virtual Center). Management of Citrix XenServer will be forthcoming, but not in the VMM release planned for this fall, says Edwin Yuen, a technical product manager with Microsoft's virtualization group.

"From one management pane, you can sort through and look at virtual machines on a per-server basis, from a logical point of view or by owner. We're trying to provide one software tool that an administrator can use for day-to-day management of all virtual machines," Yuen adds.

Input into Virtual Machine Manager is through a Windows PowerShell command-line set for consistency across platforms, Yuen says. "If you want to create a new virtual machine, it's 'Create VM,' not 'Create new VMware' or 'Create new Microsoft.' We're trying to not just unify the view but the management and the automation of the management of all these systems," Yuen says.

The strengths of third-party vendors

Still, Mann says, for the most part enterprise IT staffers may find most of what they need from third-party vendors, including big management players such as BMC Software, CA and Hewlett-Packard. Smaller vendors such as Dynamic Ops, Vizioncore and PlateSpin, a Novell company, also provide heterogeneous virtualization management.

DynamicOps's Virtual Resource Manager (VRM), for example, has enabled one global investment firm to finesse management of different virtualisation technologies in its server and desktop environments -- VMware ESX for the former, and Citrix XenDesktop in the latter. "VRM is already helping to break down these barriers and remove the discussions around the technology. It helps us focus more on service offerings," says an IT engineering manager at the firm who requested anonymity.

VRM's self-service feature allows more than 250 users in the company's development community to spin up virtual desktops as needed. "The self-service capability alone has freed our operational teams to focus on other tasks" at a rate of twice the normal workload of a full-time employee, the manager says. Plus, he adds, "VRM integrates well with third-party technologies."

That said, the investment firm hasn't taken the step of adding a second server-based hypervisor into the mix -- not yet, anyway. "We do not see [Hyper-V] being a viable solution for any of our workloads at present," says the IT manager. He notes, however, that he plans to evaluate Hyper-V Release 2 upon its availability for possible use in testing and development.

Go below the surface

A tool vendor's support of multiple hypervisors isn't enough, says Kelly Beardmore, CTO of Tenzing Managed IT Services, which uses PlateSpin Orchestrate to manage ESX, Hyper-V and Xen hypervisors in its hosting infrastructure. Instead, Beardmore advises, it's critical to make sure a management tool works with each hypervisor equally well, versus supporting every feature of one hypervisor and supporting, say, half of another's. "Most of them at this point don't," he cautions.

Given that a lot of these tools are fairly immature, IT managers have to push vendors on their development timelines, Beardmore says. Say Citrix, Microsoft or VMware releases a new version of its hypervisor full of great new capabilities. "You have to ask your management vendor, 'How long will it be until I'm going to be able to use those features through your tool?'"

On top of that, users need to ask their management vendors how adaptable a tool might be to their needs, suggests Rich Krueger, CEO of DynamicOps. "Customers should be able to go to a vendor and say, 'Here's how we do business. How will your tool help?'"

Success will come when virtualisation administrators have tools that support smart, not just mundane, work, says EMA's Mann. Automation is a key part of that, with features such as application dependency mapping, change management and live migration becoming increasingly critical as enterprises scale out their virtualization infrastructures.

At Tenzing, working smart translates into selecting a tool with strong policy and workflow engines that allow the company to create business rules without a lot of programming. "This is where our business rules will be set," Beardmore says. "If that [process] is complicated and difficult, then everything is complicated and difficult, and that limits the intelligence and power of a virtual data centre overall."

At the organisational level

While IT managers grapple with technology-related best practices, they mustn't overlook organisational ones, either, experts say. "We're not going to have a virtualisation group going forward, and we're certainly not going to have a VMware group and a Hyper-V group going forward," Mann notes. "The server team will have people who know Hyper-V and VMware, but they'll all be responsible for server virtualisation as part of managing the whole server environment."

That makes cross-training one last virtualisation best practice not to ignore, Mann says. "You can't afford to be just a VMware expert. You can afford to have a 60 to 70% skill set on VMware vs. Hyper-V, and somebody else might have the opposite." This makes cross-training key, he adds. "That's important for organisational flexibility."

Beth Schultz is a freelance IT writer in Chicago. You can reach her at [email protected].