Your IT budget is feeling the squeeze these days, and virtualization can be one of the best tools in your toolbox for keeping infrastructure expenses under control. With an eye toward maximizing your virtualization infrastructure and minimizing the impact on your bottom line, I've gathered more than a dozen useful virtualization tools and platforms to help you get the most out of your IT budget. And here's the best part: They're all free—as in no cost, no charge, and no fee required.

With Microsoft and VMware both offering their basic hypervisors for free, it was only a matter of time before more virtualization vendors followed suit by introducing no-charge apps and utilities. Now, a host of vendors are providing free versions of existing products, ranging from virtualization-management tools to performance and optimization solutions. Some of these apps are obviously geared toward convincing you to upgrade to a full-priced retail product, but some offer surprising amounts of functionality. (For more information about free virtualization tools and utilities, check out Michael Otey's "Free Virtualization Utilities" article.)

Free Virtualization Tools

If you’re already using a virtualization platform solution such as VMware ESX Server, Virtual Infrastructure 3 (VI3), Microsoft Hyper-V, or Citrix XenServer, many of these free tools can help you get the most out of your existing investment. Some work only with products from a particular vendor, but they all have one thing in common: They're free!

Veeam Monitor 3.0 Free Edition. When VMware slashed the price of ESXi to zero last year, it opened up its latest hypervisor-based virtualization technology to a much wider audience. Recognizing the need for a no-cost, real-time monitoring solution for ESX and ESXi environments, Veeam Software has introduced the Veeam Monitor Free Edition. According to Veeam, this app leverages the VMware API to keep tabs on ESX and ESXi environments, monitors resource allocation at the individual VM level, provides support for access by multiple administrators, allows for the creation of email alerts and alarms, and can correlate performance and event information. Veeam also touts the fact that the free edition of Veeam Monitor can connect directly to the VMware VM console. Find out more about the Veeam Monitor Free Edition at www.veeam.com.

Embotics V-Scout. Helping IT pros get the most out of VMware VirtualCenter is the focus of Embotics V-Scout 1.1, a free tool that aggregates and organizes information from up to two VMware VirtualCenter installations. V-Scout provides a single pane of glass for administrators to track and report on the performance of their VMs, discovers both online and offline VMs, generates VM population trend reports, and allows for the creation of standard and custom attributes when deploying VMs from clones or templates. If you're using VMware VirtualCenter, V-Scout should be at the top of your download list. Find out more about Embotics V-Scout at www.embotics.com.

Catbird Compliance Enforcer. "Security" and "compliance" are two words that can aggravate even the most seasoned IT pro. Throw a virtual data center in the mix, along with the need to keep all that virtual data secure and comliant with an avalanche of corporate and federal rules and regulations, and you have the perfect storm to create some serious IT pro indigestion. That's where Compliance Enforcer enters the picture. Offered as a free service, Compliance Enforcer can analyze your existing virtual infrastructure and highlight rogue VMs, quarantine suspect ones, and generate a host of compliance and security reports. Compliance Enforcer can be configured to monitor and enforce controls to keep your infrastructure in compliance with federal regulations (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, GLBA), and can help keep your data secure by suggesting best practices for hardening your virtual infrastructure. Find out more about Catbird Compliance Enforcer at www.catbird.com.

Tripwire ConfigCheck and OpsCheck. As the most popular virtualization solution for larger enterprises, VMware's ESX Server and Virtual Infrastructure 3 (VI3) products have created a thriving ecosystem for free apps and utilities. In June 2008, Tripwire launched ConfigCheck, a free utility that can evaluate an ESX Server installation and ensure that it's configured properly and in accordance with VMware's best practices, particularly with regards to VM security guidelines. Tripwire followed up that success with the recent unveiling of another free application, OpsCheck, which troubleshoots configuration problems that might cause VMware VMotion to encounter problems. "Virtualization professionals are faced with unknown territory, requiring new tools to manage the complexities and risks of virtual environments," said Dan Schoenbaum, chief operating officer of products of Tripwire. “That’s why Tripwire is committed to developing utilities specifically for virtualization." Find out more about ConfigCheck at www.vwire.com/free-tools/configcheck and OpsCheck at www.vwire.com.

PlateSpin Recon Inventory Edition. Before you dive headfirst into your next virtualization project, one of your first steps should be to do a fair amount of planning and analysis to ensure that the strategy you’re considering works well with the needs of your organization. PlateSpin's Recon Inventory Edition profiles and analyzes your data center, then gathers up information about traffic, workload, asset inventory, and application services to give you a clear picture of what's actually happening in your data center. This free version supports up to 100 servers and supports hardware and software inventory for virtual servers running Linux, Sun Solaris, and Windows. Find out more about PlateSpin Recon Inventory Edition at www.platespin.com.

Vizioncore vOptimizer FreeWare. Virtualization brings many cost- and energy-saving benefits to the table, but the ease with which you can create, copy, and move VMs can quickly translate into mushrooming storage needs. Resource-hungry VMs gobbling up your available network storage can quickly reverse some of the gains that virtualization gives you in the first place. Vizioncore attempts to alleviate some of those pain points with Vizioncore vOptimizer Free Ware, a product that focuses on squeezing VMs—of both the Microsoft and VMware varieties—into more manageable sizes. Find out more about Vizioncore vOptimizer Free Ware at www.vizioncore.com.

Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit. Making the switch from physical to virtual servers is a task that often requires more careful planning and deliberation than many IT pros anticipate. That's why tools such as the free Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit come in so handy: They can help take most of the guesswork (and some of the labor) out of your next physical-to-virtual migration. This agentless toolkit searches out computers in your network, then generates a detailed inventory using WMI, SNMP, or the Remote Registry Service. Not only can this toolkit help you determine which servers to virtualize, it can also help you streamline the planning and migration to other Microsoft apps and services. Find out more about Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit at technet.microsoft.com.

EasyVMX. One of the easiest ways to create a VM is by using EasyVMX, a web-based VM-creation tool. To use EasyVMX, you simply visit the EasyVMX website, provide a few details about the VM you want to create—such as which OS you want to use, a description, network configuration, NIC and drive details, and so on—then click Create Virtual Machine. EasyVMX creates the VM per your specifications, then provides a download link. An enhanced feature set is in the offing for EasyVMX 2.0, which will include enhanced Windows Vista support, better auto-detection of sound and graphics hardware, Wake-on-LAN support for virtual network cards, and more. Find out more about EasyVMX at www.easyvmx.com.

Free Virtualization Platforms You don't have to spend any money to start taking advantage of virtualization, especially if you're a smaller IT shop with only a few dozen clients. All the following solutions can help you take advantage of the benefits of virtualization, and most are just a short download away.

Virtual Iron Single Server Edition. Citrix, Microsoft, and VMware have been garnering most of the headlines these days, but Virtual Iron has been providing low-cost, high-value virtualization products for years: We liked Virtual Iron enough to give it an Editors' Best Award in our Virtualization category in 2007. Now, Virtual Iron brings virtualization to the masses with its free Single Server Edition, which allows up to four virtual servers to run off one virtual CPU. No VLAN support is offered, but local disk storage and customer support—provided via Virtual Iron's online discussion forums—are provided free of charge. Find out more about Virtual Iron Single Server Edition at www.virtualiron.com.

Microsoft Virtual PC 2007. Although it might not be the breakthrough product it once was, Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 still provides some basic virtualization functionality for a hard-to-ignore price. With Virtual PC, you can create VMs and use them to run multiple OSs on the same PC. It's feature-limited compared with pricier options, but you can't beat free: Virtual PC 2007 is available as a free download from the Microsoft website. A quick aside: You can't use VMs created by Virtual PC 2007 with VMware Player out of the box, but you can use VMware Converter to convert those VMs into a format usable by Virtual PC. Find out more about Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 at www.microsoft.com.

Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008. After dabbling with the idea of selling the standalone version of its Hyper-V technology at a quixotic $28, Microsoft followed VMware's lead and made Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 available as a free download. Microsoft might still have some catching up to do with VMware when it comes to encouraging larger enterprise customers to move to Hyper-V, but Redmond is making headway with the SMB market. And Hyper-V is no slouch in the performance department: Windows IT Pro Technical Director Michael Otey recently tested Hyper-V against ESX Server ("Virtualization Rematch," InstantDOC ID 100573), and Hyper-V turned in some impressive numbers for a release 1.0 product. Find out more about Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 at www.microsoft.com.

VMware ESXi. VMware ESXi is arguably the most advanced hypervisor currently on the market, which makes the fact that this product is completely free all the more compelling. In his recent review of ESXi ("VMware ESXi," InstantDoc ID 101039) , Otey touted ESXi as a "production-proven virtualization platform that’s easy to install and manage," and VMware’s VI3 management platform gives it the "ability to use VMotion as well as VMware’s backup and high availability features when VI3 is present." Otey also liked the fact that ESXi provides similar performance to Hyper-V while providing even broader support for Linux guests. "If you need to run a combination of Linux and Windows VMs in a production environment, ESXi is your first choice in virtualization products," Otey said. Find out more about ESXi at www.vmware.com.

VMware Player. When you don't need to actually create a VM—but you need the ability to run one—the VMware Player could be just what the IT manager ordered. Available as a free download from the VMware website, VMware Player lets you load and run VMs created by other virtualization products, namely VMs created by Microsoft Virtual Server, Microsoft Virtual PC, VMware Workstation, VMware Fusion, VMware Server or VMware ESX. This conveniently allows you to run multiple OSes on just one piece of hardware, and VMware also touts the ability of VMware Player to load and run appliances found in the VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace. The inability to create VMs can be a significant obstacle for some, but there are a number of other apps and utilities that can be used to created VMs. Find out more about VMware Player at www.vmware.com.

Sun MicroSystems VirtualBox. Microsoft, Citrix, and VMware might routinely get all the headlines when it comes to desktop virtualization software, but there are alternatives. One of the best is Sun MicroSystems' VirtualBox, an open-source hypervisor that offers impressive host-OS support (from Windows and Mac OS X to Solaris, Linux, and many permutations thereof) and a robust list of features. Part of the Sun xVM product portfolio, VirtualBox 2.1 features upgraded support for storage appliances, revamped network performance, new 3D graphics support (via the OpenGL API), improved performance through Microsoft's virtual hard disk (VHD) and VMware's virtual machine disk (VMDK) formats, and 64-bit guest-OS support on 32-bit platforms. VirtualBox has come a long way in the past few years, and this latest release is the best one yet. It's free for individual enterprise users, but subscriptions for larger installations are also available, starting at $30 per user, per year. Find out more about VirtualBox 2.1 at www.virtualbox.org.

Citrix XenServer Express Edition. Just like VMware (with ESXi) and Microsoft (with Hyper-V Server 2008), Citrix provides a free version of its XenServer product, dubbed Citrix XenServer Express Edition. This version includes the same performance as more expensive versions of Xen, with the exception of all the additional functionality included with the Standard and Enterprise editions of XenServer. So what does Citrix XenServer Express give you? You can run up to four concurrent VMs on each XenServer host, and you get support for up to 4GB of RAM. It also supports dual-core CPUs. If you ever want to upgrade to the more powerful Standard or Enterprise editions, Citrix provides an easy upgrade and licensing path to the more fully featured (and expensive) versions. Find out more about Citrix XenServer Express Edition at www.citrix.com.

Note: Citrix recently announced that XenServer Enterprise Edition would be offered for free as well.

What Are Your Favorites?

Now that you know about some of the best free virtualization solutions, we'd like to hear from you: Do you have any favorite (and free!) virtualization tools or platforms that you count on to get the most out of your virtual IT infrastructure? We'd love to hear about what works best for you, so drop me a message at jjames@windowsitpro.com with your comments, or direct message me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeffjames3.