A Practical Guide to Managing a Virtual Data Center

Tech Analysis: Somewhere between the public and private cloud, between the way things are and the way they will be in the future, lies the very practical question of just how to keep a handle on all these newly virtualized resources.

Another study, this one from Prism Microsystems, has just come out talking about the low rate of server virtualization. Be that as it may, economic pressures and the technological advances in multicore, virtualization-enabled processors mean that virtualization rates will increase in the next couple of years.

That means this is the perfect time to work on the strategic decisions that will guide server and other forms of IT virtualization. As I've written on several occasions, effective management of virtual resources will separate the weak from the strong. And having spent several weeks running a modest-sized test lab on a Lenovo W510 mobile workstation, I have some advice for IT managers about where to look for management inspiration.

Go watch the coders in your testing and development department to gather firsthand the clues that will shape your management of the future. Developers are the people most likely to be dealing with the prototype problems of virtual machine creation, maintenance, snapshot creation, storage and decommissioning. And shortly after management comes the inextricably linked question of security and how that affects the approach to virtualization in a production environment.

Developers are likely to be the IT equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider. Instead of universe-building materials, developer use of virtualization can reveal the building blocks of IT management techniques that will be essential in the next couple of years.

Although it's tempting to say we already solved all of today's virtualization questions back when virtualization was invented in the '60s, history doesn't actually repeat itself. Today's virtualization is similar to that of the past, but different in significant ways. For one thing, virtualization today was born not from scarcity but from abundance. Moore's Law led to great expanses of computing resources that remained underused for most of the '80s and '90s. And, sadly, American companies have only recently come to care about energy costs.

Developers in your organization-if they are using desktop virtualization tools like VMware Workstation or Oracle's VirtualBox-are very likely home-spinning solutions to the thorny problem of keeping track of all these VMs. I'm hoping that they are, by virtue of necessity, taking a somewhat more holistic approach than I've seen from most commercial vendors. Lately I've been getting pitches for security tools, management platforms and virtual widgets that take care of this identity concern or that storage problem. I haven't really seen anything yet for the virtual infrastructure that takes into account the overall interconnection. The exception might be Cisco's UCS-but that's a whole lot of premium, single-vendor buy in.

As I look at my own rather paltry attempts to use paper and pencil to sketch out a management framework that can bring order to chaos in my harried test lab, I do see the beginnings of what management tools will look like in the future. Today, business-critical workloads overwhelmingly run in private data centers. Economic pressures will consolidate those workloads to take advantage of underutilized hardware. But virtualization isn't stopping at consolidation. Virtual workloads make it possible-when economically prudent-to move to multitenant public cloud resources. We are approaching a time when there will be a real choice between running workloads in a private data center and using a public cloud. And that decision point is going to be sooner than later.

Between here and there, we, as IT managers, will need to master the age-old questions of what's installed where and who's got access. Unlike the '60s and '70s when the high priests were locked in frigid, raised-floor rooms, the business side of the house has gotten much savvier about how data systems work and have much higher expectations about where, when and how information is made available to them.

As the cost-saving methods of today transform into the standard way business is conducted tomorrow, savvy IT managers will put management of virtual resources first. And the outlines of effective strategies for doing so are likely being cooked up today in your test and dev department.