With Microsoft’s virtualization platform reaching maturity in 2008, the company’s offerings now span the PC desktop, small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs), enterprises, and even the largest data centers. What’s missing is centralized management, especially in large environments. Businesses need ways to manage environments in which virtual and physical machines interact, automate the distribution of virtualized resources, and consolidate legacy physical servers into virtual environments. The new version of Microsoft’s virtual environment management product addresses those needs. Here’s what you need to know about Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 (VMM 2008).

What Is VMM 2008?
VMM is a data-center management server that provides functionality specific to virtualized environments. Key functionality includes the ability to convert legacy and underutilized hardware servers into virtual machines (VMs); provision, deploy, and manage VMs and other virtual assets; and automatically optimize a virtualized infrastructure. VMM 2008 also provides virtual-to-virtual (V2V) conversion facilities for moving VMs off of VMware ESX Server.

Heterogeneous Management
VMM 2008 can manage all of Microsoft’s virtual environment server products, including Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V, and Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008. That’s to be expected. But it can also manage VMware ESX Server, a surprising boon for those who run heterogeneous environments.

In a recent briefing, Microsoft program manager David Armour told me that VMM 2008 treats ESX Server as a “first-class citizen,” providing access to the most frequently needed ESX Server management functions. But it also lets you leverage unique VMM functionality, such as automated VM placement, VMM’s Microsoft SQL Server 2005–based library, and the like.

As a member of the System Center family of management products, VMM 2008 produces and can consume System Center alerts and can trigger actions based on those alerts. This integration with key System Center products such as Operations Manager 2007 means that it’s possible to monitor physical and virtual machines from a single interface, while leveraging virtualization-specific functionality. The VMM 2008 UI is also similar to that of other System Center products and is modeled after that of Ops Manager, helping admins get up and running quickly.

And as with many other recent Microsoft administrative consoles, the VMM console is built entirely on top of Windows PowerShell—so everything you can do from the GUI is possible via scripting as well. It’s also possible to perform actions in the GUI and find out what underlying scripts are used to perform those actions, then use those scripts as the basis for automated routines of your own.

Automated VM Deployment
VMM 2008 analyzes the virtualization hosts in your environment and recommends the most appropriate physical servers for your virtualized workloads. This feature, called Intelligent Placement, can also work in an automated fashion if desired, moving virtual assets from host to host as needed and on the fly. After VMs are deployed, you can monitor their settings and manage their placement accordingly.

The VMM 2008 library provides a central location for managing and storing virtual assets such as VMs, virtual hard disks (VHDs), ISO files, profiles, customization scripts and sysprep answer files, and templates. You can implement multiple libraries in large, distributed environments to prevent WAN-based performance problems.

A new VMM 2008 feature, Performance and Resource Optimization (PRO), optimizes virtualized resources using performance and health data provided by Ops Manager 2007 management packs. VMM 2008 also integrates with the failover clustering feature in Windows Server 2008, giving your virtualized environments cluster-aware, highavailability functionality.

Installing and Using VMM 2008
Unlike Microsoft’s free VM management tool, Hyper-V Manager, VMM 2008 must be installed in an Active Directory (AD) domain. (VM hosts don’t need to be domain members, however.) It can be installed on top of Server 2008 x64 only and includes a copy of SQL Server 2005 Express, which the VMM library and reporting functionality require. It can also use existing SQL Server installations, including SQL Server 2008. You can install the VMM 2008 admin console on Windows Vista SP1, Windows Server 2003, and Windows XP SP3. A self-service portal, which you can install on Server 2008 and Windows 2003R2, lets you provide VMM functionality via an intranet. You need to install a VMM 2008 agent on each host and library server.

Compared to Hyper-V Manager, VMM 2008 offers an amazing amount of additional functionality. The UI is more sophisticated and provides advanced filtering and host groups, letting you view logical groups of VMs on any number of physical hosts in a single view. A resizable preview window lets you view running VMs, limiting the need to connect to the VM and open it in a separate window. This filtering and grouping also makes managing clusters of VM hosts much easier.

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Most of VMM 2008’s advanced tools are accessible via simple wizards. The Migrate Virtual Machine Wizard rates potential target hosts in a migration and lets you easily pick an appropriate destination. Migration of Hyper-V–based VMs is not instantaneous, but is nearly so; migration of ESX Server VMs, however, is instantaneous thanks to that system’s live migration facilities. (Live Migration is coming to Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2.) Every wizard has a View Script button, so you can see the PowerShell code that’s being generated under the hood and apply it to your own scripts.

In use, VMM 2008’s library is a veneer over the underlying file system. As you navigate through subfolders such as ISOs, Scripts, Templates, and VHDs, you’re seeing a representation of these objects as they are literally stored in Explorer.

The VMM 2008 Self-Service Portal is interesting as well. This web application lets end users start, stop, and pause VMs, make check points, and perform other related actions, all without involving a support call. Available VMs can be shown in a text-based list view or a more graphical thumbnail view, which provides a live glimpse into the running VMs.

A primary advantage of VMM 2008 over VMware tools is that Microsoft can see further into each VM than can its competition. Thanks to the System Center management pack integration, you can dig into each VM and manage the underlying workloads as well.

So whereas VMware is limited to identifying the OS utilized by the VM, VMM 2008 can go further and, for example, determine whether Microsoft IIS is installed. Then you can view the event log and perform other lower-level work.

Recommendations
VMM 2008 is a sophisticated solution and is far more capable than the freebie Hyper- V Manager, as expected. But what makes VMM 2008 so compelling is its interoperability prowess: It works with all of Microsoft’s virtualization servers and with VMware ESX Server. It integrates with System Center and provides a seamless, centralized management interface for physical and virtual machines. And it can utilize the failover and high-availability features of Server 2008 to provide data-center–ready virtualized environments. Ultimately, VMM 2008 will most interest those who manage large data centers. But it will make deploying and managing virtualized environments easier for businesses of all sizes.

Paul Thurott (thurrott@windowsitpro.com) is the news editor for Windows IT Pro. He writes a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE (www.windowsitpro.com/email) and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE (www.wininformant.com).