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DIY provisioning: the answer to your virtualisation dreams?

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If you have ever had to justify the deployment of a new server, you will know what an uphill struggle it can be to clear all kinds of technical and business hurdles.

Some of these can be addressed by virtualisation, but often all that does is move the bottlenecks further down the line, as well as add a few “virtual” problems besides.

From a purely technical standpoint, virtualisation has a lot going for it. More effective use can be made of physical resources and new virtual servers can deployed in minutes instead of the days or weeks required to sign off, buy and configure proper boxes.

Sad ending

If the web site needs more oomph, fire up a new virtual web server and you have it. And if the development team puts in a request for a couple of Linux servers for system testing – no problem, just press a few buttons.

It is all virtual, it is quick and it works, but most virtualisation platforms still require a high degree of expertise to manage. Moreover, few offer mechanisms for the business side to manage the deployment, leaving technical staff to decide whether a new virtual machine is justified or even within budget.

Worse still, on its own virtualisation does little to help manage the back end of the server lifecycle, or to release and re-use resources when virtual machines are no longer needed.

If anything, because they don’t clutter up the data centre any more, it becomes even harder to keep on top of virtual servers as they reach the end of their lives.

One answer is to dedicate staff to the management and policing of virtual resources. Another, arguably better, approach is to automate the processes involved and allow self-service provisioning.

Construction work

Businesses with in-house expertise can often built a self-service portal themselves, complete with custom workflow controls to manage the business processes.

However, virtualisation vendors have also woken up to the need and are adding this kind of functionality to their platforms, spurred on by the growing interest in cloud-based delivery of infrastructure as a service.

VMware offers vCloud Director to work specifically with its vSphere platform. This enables virtual data centre resources to be delivered as private cloud services, offering self-service web portals and business-process automation as key components.

Microsoft’s products include an add-on for System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM), known as the Self-Service Portal 2.0.

Designed to work with Hyper-V, this complements the self-service facilities in SCVMM, adding a web-based user interface plus what Microsoft describes as “business unit on-boarding” – jargon for forms and workflow rules to automate the approval and rejection of self-service requests.

Taking up the baton

The company has also announced System Center Orchestrator. More than just a re-branding of the Opalis automation product Microsoft acquired last year, Orchestrator will be a key part of the upcoming System Center 2012 family, delivering tools to automate data centre processes driven by real-time business workflows.

It will also work across multiple platforms and, like the Opalis product, will integrate with management tools from both Microsoft and other developers.

Self service is just one of many features in Orchestrator. Other vendors have products that focus exclusively on self service. Among them is Dell, which offers a product called Self-Service Creator.

Resources can be returned to the available pool rather than sit around unused

Part of the Dell Virtual Integrated System family, Self-Service Creator is, like Orchestrator, designed to be vendor-neutral, managing virtual workload delivery across hypervisors that use different image deployment technologies and management systems.

Key features include multi-level sign-off for virtual machine requests, plus the ability to lease virtual resources, so that when the lease expires those resources can be returned to the available pool rather than sit around unused.

These and similar self-service solutions are still in their infancy and don’t fully address the capacity planning issues that virtualisation can throw up. They are nonetheless a promising start and a good way of addressing many virtual machine provisioning woes. ®

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