Most research indicates that a server administrator can effectively administer 20 to 30 servers. That same research indicates that there has been little if any in admin-to-server ratios in a virtualized environment. Yet a virtualization project almost always leads to a net gain in the number of servers that an IT organization is responsible for.

A key component in increasing virtual server-admin efficiency is automation; the automation of routine tasks and the development of completely automated workflows.

The Challenge of Automation

Process automation and workflow engines are nothing new in IT. While there have been attempts in the past to implement these types of strategies into the broader enterprise, they often result in limited success. The challenge faced by these initiatives is usually one of scale. The project is too large, too broad and/or it covers too many incompatible people, processes and technologies.

The first limiter is people. The data center for most of this decade has been operated at very thin staffing levels, making big projects hard to undertake. Much of the IT professional's day is spent just staying above water. They don’t have time to invest in a new project - even if it may save them time in the long run. Additionally, large projects require the involvement of multiple groups, within and outside of IT. Getting a large (busy) group to agree on anything is difficult, and time consuming.

Beyond the people issues are technology issues. There are a limited number of unifying factors in the data center. Each segment (disk, applications, networking, etc,) has a different interface making it difficult to develop and implement an automation product that covers enough of the environment to be useful.

Automation's New Home

Where automation begins to make sense is within the virtual infrastructure by leveraging products like Vizioncore's vControl. By focusing in this particular area the big challenges to automation solutions are removed. Keeping the project centered on just the virtual infrastructure means fewer people involved and it means they’re assigned similar tasks - server administration. Additionally, while the focus of the project is smaller, the virtualized environment is still significant enough to be relevant.

Second, there is a much higher degree of commonality in the virtual infrastructure. And, while it is expected to expand, most data centers have thus far implemented just one hypervisor, two at the most. While they may run different Operating Systems each virtual machine within that virtualized environment is, from a hardware perspective, logically identical to the others. And the primary component that the automation software would communicate with, the hypervisor, is finite and very consistent. This consistency means that automation workflows can be written once and affect a broad number of processes within the virtual environment.

This technological consistency allows for an automation and workflow engine to be delivered with a high number of building blocks that allow for a workflow to be built visually and quickly.

The Value of Virtualized Automation

Be leveraging virtualization in this technologically consistent environment you can capture real gains in system administrator productivity. Many tasks within the virtual infrastructure are not complex but require manual interaction to move them along.

Examples of tasks that server virtualization administrators may want to automate include:

Rescanning Storage - Very often when an admin creates a new LUN on either iSCSI or Fibre storage they will log into each ESX server one at a time and rescan each HBA manually. This is not a difficult task but it’s very time consuming. With automation this could be done with a single command. Similarly, adding, changing and removing port groups is a manual, server-by-server process. Automating this can be a huge time saver.

Provisioning Multiple Virtual Machines - As discussed in our article on Virtual Machine Provisioning, automating the provisioning of virtual machines has tremendous value. For example, the following tasks could be automated into a single command:

1)provisioning a virtual machine to run a report processing job on a database

2)outputting the results of the report

3)turning off the virtual machine

Now, expand this example out to where you need ten virtual machines to test load on an application, run the test and then turn off or remove the ten virtual machines. Doing either example manually could take hours. Both of these could be put into a workflow.

Snapshot Management - While many backup applications will leverage the virtualization software's snapshot capabilities, there are going to be times other than during backup where snapshots will be useful. For example let's assume that it’s time to apply a significant OS patch. You may want to take a snapshot of all the affected virtual machines prior to applying the patch. This would mean going to each virtualization host, identifying the VMs to snapshot and manually executing the job. Then, you still have to apply the patches and eventually clean up those old snapshots. With automation, all of these tasks could be performed from a single command, including the clean up process.

Modifying Custom Properties - Some virtualization products allow users to attach unique information about VMs, Hosts and Host Clusters. For example, the VMware vCenter “Custom Properties” allows users to put specific detail for these components in the vCenter database to flag specific properties for their environment. Some people use this to flag “Application Owner” or “SLA Level” to help categorize VMs in ways VMware didn’t intend. Many of these fields are modified at build-time of the VM, so integrating this into Self-Service Provisioning would be a good “post step”, since doing this manually is tedious (when a large number of systems are deployed), or often forgotten altogether.

These are just some examples of what a workflow automation solution could do for the virtualization administrator. But the real value of the tool is in giving you the ability to automate nearly anything you do on a routine basis in the virtualization environment. Using virtual automation to improve OPEX allows server virtualization to reach its full potential of lowering costs on both the CAPEX and OPEX sides of the equation.