What to watch for during a virtual machine’s life cycle

Planning will get you only so far. A virtual machine must be managed throughout its life cycle. Eight stages to consider:

A virtual machine must be managed through its life cycle; tools like FastScale Composer can help.

Creation: Enterprise-class configuration of the server and applications, mostly done manually through the virtual-machine manager interface. Automated image-capture of physical machines is starting to take root with such niche vendors as Transitive, particularly in the area of emulating non-x86 processors and running them on other processors, making it possible, for example, to manage Solaris and Windows.

Visibility: Machines set up for a specific purpose - for example, testing or development - can linger without administrators' knowledge. Hyper9's Virtual Infrastructure Search and Analytics tool, a Google-like search engine offering basic discovery and state inspection of virtual machines, will be free for download in September. For application visibility, Tideway Systems' Foundation maps application relationships to the physical and virtual servers.

Load balancing: Virtual machines must move around and change their purpose as needed to handle predictable and on-demand loads. Most organizations do this manually using native VMware ESX, Citrix Systems XenSource and Microsoft Hyper-V controls. Niche products, such as FastScale Technology's FastScale Composer Suite and Evidant's EvidantSP software suite, also are starting to get attention.

Machines in production: Managing live machines is done manually by using native virtual-machine interfaces, but more tools are starting to enable the cross-platform management of some of all of these features on a pick-and-choose basis. Novell's ZENworks, for example, includes asset-, configuration- and patch-management components. Life-cycle points during production include licensing; access controls; patch-, configuration- and change-management; security (settings, default services and ports, antimalware, firewalls and so forth); service-level thresholds for physical machines, virtual machines and applications; and allocation.

Specific services should not be bunched together. Separate virtual farms logically or physically, depending on their function (Web, database and so forth) to make them easier to locate.

Without virtualization, a single stand-alone function used to call for a single physical server. Now single-function servers (for print, DNS, small but critical applications) share space on multifunction servers and get lost in the crowd. Search tools help, but labeling virtual servers by their applications keeps them organized.

Failover: Depending on circumstances, this can be done to another location on the same server or to another physical machine. Failover can be automated using third-party and large systems-management tools.

Repurposing: One minute, it's a mail server, the next it's a developer's box, based on use and need for capacity. Manual rollover, by way of virtual-machine managers, and some automated capabilities are emerging in such tools as FastScale Composer.

Storage: There's more than one school of thought on continuous use and repurposing vs. sleep storage. If virtual machines are allowed to sleep, they must run through patch- and configuration-management checkers when they wake or "spin" up. If a virtual machine is continually repurposed, then its patch levels should stay current (as long as patch management and so forth is in place).

Retirement: Set expiration dates for virtual machines. In addition, detect systems that were created but have been inactive for a set period of time, and auto-expire them. Fortisphere is working on this.

- Deb Radcliff

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