Virtualization technology is rapidly spreading, with many enterprises having infrastructure heavily comprised of virtual machines, servers, and storage. These kinds of virtualization are created with technology called a “virtual machine manager” or a “hypervisor,” and this technology can (and should) be monitored and managed with other software. Using monitoring software like SolarWinds® Virtualization Manager or APTARE IT Analytics for managing your virtual machine is something all administrators need to consider, because it can take a huge amount of work off your shoulders and help address some of the common challenges virtualization presents.
What Is a Virtual Machine?
A virtual machine (VM) is an abstracted instance of a computer system capable of acting like a real, physical computer. Several virtual machines can run separately in parallel on a single underlying device. (You can also virtualize servers, applications, and various other IT components.)
Virtual machines have many uses. For instance, VMs can be used to change operating systems, like using a Windows guest operating system on a Mac OS host machine. In addition, you could also test software on this guest operating system the host OS can’t use, or test programs on operating systems to ensure they work the same on every OS. Virtual machines can also be used as security buffers and can be used to execute malicious code or check out suspicious files without harming other parts of your system.
What Is a Virtual Machine Manager?
The definition of “virtual machine manager” can be a bit ambiguous, as this can be used to refer to different pieces of software. In some cases, people will use this term to mean a hypervisor, which can create virtual machines and allocate hardware resources to them. A virtual machine manager in many cases also refers to a tool or piece of software managing your hypervisors, virtual machines, or virtual environment generally. When we’re thinking of the kind of tools administrators need, virtual machine monitors and programs to track the performance of your virtual environment are incredibly vital. I’ll briefly explain how hypervisors work, then go through why you might need software to manage your hypervisors and virtual machines.
Hypervisors come in two forms: hosted hypervisors and bare-metal hypervisors. Hosted hypervisors are installed on the host operating system, such as Microsoft Windows. You can then open them like any normal computer application, and in most cases, these hypervisors use a kind of “setup wizard” for you to easily create virtual machines and change their settings as needed. Bare-metal hypervisors are installed directly on the hardware, which can make things a little more complicated if you’re not familiar with more in-depth computer management.
Hypervisors can virtualize many different parts of your infrastructure and systems, including creating virtual desktops, applications, networks, storage, servers, and even data. A hypervisor is a layer between the hardware and your virtual machines, or between your host operating system and the virtual machines. Enterprises often use them to increase storage capacity without needing to buy more hardware, or to virtualize desktops so employees can access standardized workstations. The virtualization of infrastructure allows cloud providers to provide infrastructure as a service, and virtualized applications mean you can access the same application anywhere, regardless of device. The use of hypervisors and virtual technology is extremely useful for both individuals and businesses.
You should also be aware of the Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager, a standalone program. The Microsoft System Center is a suite of tools from Microsoft allowing system administrators to create and manage virtual machines on Windows Server operating systems. It works with Microsoft Hyper-V (a bare-metal hypervisor) and is primarily designed to manage virtual servers created by Hyper-V and Microsoft Virtual Server. When you see the term “Virtual Machine Manager,” it could be referring to this Microsoft product, so be careful when looking up documentation or information on this topic.
For a virtual machine manager, Linux also has options. In some cases, “Virtual Machine Manager” could also refer to the Red Hat Virtual Machine Manager. The Red Hat Virtual Machine Manager for Linux allows you to set up virtual machines and monitor their performance. Some other pieces of software made by other third-party vendors are also called Virtual Machine Manager.
We’ll focus on virtual machine manager software generally, including hypervisors and why you might use them, and then performance monitoring and management tools for hypervisors and virtual machines. For administrators, this kind of toolkit and a solid understanding of virtual technology is important for ensuring your business virtual environment is functioning efficiently and performing well.
Why Monitor Virtual Machines?
Virtual machines need to be managed and monitored for numerous reasons, including:
- Resource management. First, while virtual machines act as if they’re connected directly to the computer’s hardware, they’re not. There can sometimes be mismatches between what the virtual machine “thinks” it has access to and what the physical hardware can provide. For example, when using thin provisioning, the administrator can make it appear to virtual machines as if they have access to more physical resources than are available on the physical hardware. This can allow virtual machines to function more efficiently, but you can run into problems with slowed performance or crashes when too many virtual machines require resources the hardware can’t provide.
If one of your virtual machines malfunctions or has been infected with malware, it could start consuming more resources than expected and affect other virtual machines as a result. Monitoring software can detect a rapid change in performance, particularly if one virtual machine quickly starts consuming more resources than it should.
- The configuration of your virtual machines may change at various times, and you need to always ensure configuration changes don’t break or affect something else in your environment in a bad way. With virtualization, the configurations and settings of virtual machines can be easily changed, which means someone can inadvertently change a setting. Monitoring software can alert you to any unexpected changes and can let you know if a change has resulted in performance problems. There are also several processes and operations that can occur in the virtual environment, such as live migration, backups, disaster recovery, or machines powering on and off.
5 Virtual Machine Management Best Practices
When you’re managing virtual machines, it’s important to follow a set of best practices.
- Evaluate Your Environment. You need to be aware of what your virtual environment looks like, so you can keep tabs on the most important devices and metrics. If you aren’t sure which virtual devices are powered on or off, or whether your virtual servers are functioning properly, you won’t be able to quickly and efficiently fix problems when they occur. Troubleshooting slowdowns relies on being able to pinpoint an issue and if you haven’t mapped out your environment completely you might not even know a slowdown is occurring until your users start complaining.
Take a regular inventory of your virtual environment to keep on top of things before it affects your customers or business. You can use a tool to map your virtual environment, and it may be much more efficient and accurate than trying to attempt this process manually. Using a tool with a centralized virtual machine manager console is important so you can see aspects of your entire environment in one place.
- Stop Sprawl. Virtualization sprawl happens when you have so many virtual machines in your environment you have trouble keeping track of them, or you have redundant or unnecessary machines. Because it’s easy to create virtual machines (much easier than getting new hardware), it can be easy to over-provision virtual machines where you don’t need them. This can end up undoing some of the consolidation and efficiency benefits virtualization is supposed to achieve.
Ensure you take steps to control virtualization sprawl, and power off or remove any unnecessary virtual machines. By doing an appropriate evaluation of your virtual environment (as in point 1 above), you can see where sprawl is occurring and take steps to reduce it.
- Manage Security Risks. Security risks to your virtual environment can come in many forms. First, if you haven’t kept on top of sprawl, as I just mentioned, this leaves more machines and points where an attacker can gain access to your network. While virtual machines are isolated from each other, it’s still possible for attackers to gain information about your network structure or setup by looking at individual machines.
Second, when you store sensitive data or information in a virtual machine, hackers can access it if they gain access to the machine. It’s important to ensure your virtual environment has appropriate security and anti-malware tools in place. Finally, don’t underestimate the possibility of internal risks, both malicious and accidental. Unknowing users can change virtual machine configuration or access settings, accidentally uninstall something, or intentionally access data they shouldn’t be able to. Keep access privileges for your virtual environment as tight as you would for any physical environment.
- Stay Updated. When you haven’t kept your software or operating systems updated, this also leaves potential vulnerabilities open for attackers to target. Bugs in software, hypervisors, or operating systems can allow intruders access to your systems, even if those systems are virtual. Ensure your virtual machine software is always updated, and applications and programs installed on your virtual machines are also regularly patched.
- Make a Backup Plan. Ensure you have a management plan in place if virtual machine performance rapidly drops off, or if you have a problem with your virtual environment affecting your users. You need to have a clear team in place, so you’re aware of who will deal with what issues, particularly security issues or major issues with service levels. Having dedicated staff and teams in place for each potential problem, along with a clear plan of escalation and resolution, will help you if you need to fix something in your virtual environment quickly.
Best Virtual Machine Management Tools
Hypervisors themselves include basic monitoring tools, and tools to help you interact with the virtual machine from the host machine, such as shared clipboards, date and time synchronization, integration with other management software, SNMP trap capabilities, and resource access configuration.
Even with the tools included with many hypervisors, you also need third-party virtual machine management tools to ensure your virtualization software is functioning correctly. For a virtual machine manager, VMware or Hyper-V will also need to be integrated. These are the most common hypervisors and using a virtual machine manager administrator console integrated with your hypervisor means you can easily keep on top of your entire virtual environment. Here are a few of the top tools I think do a good job at managing and monitoring virtual machine performance.
My top recommendation for virtual machine management tools is SolarWinds Virtualization Manager as it has several key features for managing virtual machines and environments at an enterprise level. It includes tools to help you analyze your virtual environment, stop sprawl, and monitor the performance of your virtual machines.
It’s highly compatible with Microsoft Hyper-V virtual environments and has built-in dashboards and an integrated virtual machine manager console to show you performance and health. It also allows you to remedy many virtual machine or environment issues without needing to log in to your hypervisor at all.
Configuration changes in Hyper-V can often cause performance issues, but the exact change or problem can be hard to pinpoint. Virtualization Manager includes configuration management tools, which means you can much more easily track and remedy any host, VM, application, or OS configuration issues. Finding the root cause of the problem in this way is much faster and can bring your systems back to functionality much quicker than trying to troubleshoot on your own.
For virtual storage, Virtualization Manager includes capacity monitoring and planning tools, so you can keep tabs on how much storage you’re using and how storage is allocated between virtual machines. You can even predict your CPU, memory, network, and storage needs.
With its visibility across the entire application stack, Virtualization Manager can give you broad insights into your whole virtual environment. It includes visualizations and color-coded dashboards, so you can see the health of everything in one glance.
The APTARE IT Analytics tool is another good option, as it provides unified monitoring for your entire network, regardless of whether your network is on-premises, in the cloud, or comprised of a mixture of physical and virtual machines. The console allows you to see insights into storage and capacity, which allows you to provision new virtual machines if need be or purchase more physical storage.
It also examines network and device performance and performs risk analysis to let you know where you can mitigate risk, with the intention of smoothing out issues before they affect your SLAs.
This tool is a little more focused on storage, rather than virtual machine security, but it includes features such as special backup compliance measures and tools to ensure backups have completed successfully. You can request a demo of IT Analytics on their website.
Veeam ONE is another well-known virtual machine management tool for monitoring and analyzing your virtual and physical environments. It has real-time monitoring, reporting, and alerting, and includes reporting tools so you can maintain compliance.
It also allows you to set up alarms to let you know if your critical applications running in VMs aren’t performing as expected. It also includes tracking tools for resources, so you can chargeback to appropriate usage centers. It even includes a few automated resolutions to common problems, so you can set it up to respond on your behalf if you wish to do so. You can download a free trial from their website.
Finally, I’ll also quickly highlight WhatsUp Gold. This is a network monitoring tool, but it includes various add-ons if you want to focus on specific areas of monitoring. The Virtualization Monitoring Add-On is useful for also monitoring your Hyper-V and VMware infrastructure. It allows you to track and measure performance, as well as resource consumption and server availability. If you already use WhatsUp Gold, you can purchase this add-on separately. If you’re looking for a general network monitoring solution but want to try out some features to look at your virtual machines, you can give this add-on a try. It’s generally more suitable for small and medium-sized businesses rather than large enterprises.
At the end of the day, you need to ensure you have a set of clear best practices you follow in your organization, as well as a good understanding of how virtual machines work, why you need to monitor them, and which tools you need to do so efficiently and accurately.