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Virtual management? It's complicated

Load balancing VMs by hand

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At this point you have a couple of choices. If you want optimal power savings you can opt to turn the server right off. A simple script can tell the virtualisation software: “Shut off the server if no VMs are active.” The BIOS can be programmed to wake the server at a given time, or a wake on lan (WOL) scheduler of some sort can poke the server a few minutes before staff start trickling in the next morning. If your VMs are configured to auto-start on boot, then when the system comes up, it will “resume” all your virtual machines, and you’ve just saved several hours of electricity consumption on that system.

The other approach is that of relying on power management features within the hardware to give you power savings without turning the system off. Your CPUs could be configured to back down to as near “off” as is possible when idle - the disks could stop spinning. Advanced servers can even power down DIMMs that are not in use.

If you are going to need to be able to bring the VMs on that server up in less than the five minutes or so it takes a server to boot and resume its VMs, then this is the only way to eke out power savings. No modern business ever truly shuts down. Even after all the staff have gone home, there are some computer systems active. Routers, email and web servers, some desktops or VDI instances left running because certain staff remote in from home at odd hours. We even leave dedicated systems up to monitor the activity of all the other systems and report problems. These systems left active all day are certainly among those that would be considered “critical”. Outages of more than a few minutes result in a red-faced pointy-haired boss pacing the IT offices demanding answers.

While there may be other systems which are “critical” to have operational during the day, these 24/7 workloads are special. In an ideal world, one where the resiliency of computer hardware didn’t suck, you would consolidate all your 24/7 workloads onto a single spiffy virtual server, and shut everything else down when it wasn’t needed. In the real world though, this is “too many eggs in one basket”, and generally a terrible idea.

So let’s say that you manage to spread these 24/7 services out across a couple different physical servers, thus at least partly mitigating the risks. You’ve figured out what can be shut down at night, and done this. You still need to keep an eye on the physical servers running those 24/7 VMs, and be alerted when they fail. You then need to move the workloads over to backup servers (or spin up some of the sleeping ones) so you can restart the dropped VMs. This is where, unless your sysadmins are manning the servers 24/7, we start getting into absolutely requiring management software. If you want to virtualise your 24/7 critical workloads, then you absolutely require good management software that is capable of treating all virtual servers available to it as a gigantic cluster.

You need a good SAN, so that you can move workloads from one virtual server to the other in real time, and you need to spend the time to get to know your flavour of virtual server management software in depth. You should be able to tell your management software which are your absolutely critical VMs by assigning resource priorities. You can configure it to spin up critical VMs as soon as they fail, and even to power down unused nodes. None of these tools remove the need to do proper resource modelling on your VMs; nor to properly configure suspend and resume times in order to conserve power.

In all honesty, if you aren’t trying to run critical workloads on your virtual infrastructure, you can probably do all the management, including power optimisation by hand, without having to purchase any of the expensive tools from any of the vendors. (I do just fine on ESXi, thank you very much.) What these management tools do is make it realistically possible to virtualise 24/7 critical services if you so choose. That will be the focus of my next article: when talking about critical workloads (especially 24/7 ones) is virtualisation really worth it? ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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