In-Depth

System Center's VM Manager Aims to Connect Private and Hybrid Clouds

The new manager found in System Center 2012 R2 allows for simple resource movement between environments.

Within Microsoft's new System Center 2012 R2 platform, the company has made some notable improvements to System Center Virtual Machine Manager. The release of System Center 2012 R2 in October came nine months after Microsoft shipped System Center 2012 SP1, yet the company added a significant number of new features to its flagship systems management platform.

Before examining the new features, it's important to understand System Center 2012 R2's new design philosophy. It's widely understood Microsoft is now marketing Windows Server 2012 R2 as a "Cloud OS." In the not too distant past, Microsoft's vision for the cloud was all about outsourcing. Needless to say, there was quite a backlash from IT pros who didn't want their jobs outsourced. This led Microsoft to change its cloud philosophy.

Today, Microsoft has a three-pronged vision for the cloud. The first tier is the customer cloud. These are "private clouds" built in a customer's own datacenter using on premises resources.

The second tier is the service provider cloud. This is functionally similar to the customer cloud, except that it exists at a much larger scale. As the name implies, a service provider cloud lets service providers provide applications or virtual machines (VMs) to their customers on a subscription basis. Microsoft Office 365 is an example of a service provider cloud. The model also includes third party service providers.

The third cloud tier is Windows Azure. Windows Azure lets you run VMs off premises in a hosted environment.

Microsoft has acknowledged none of these cloud tiers are mutually exclusive. Most organizations will use some combination of all three. For example, in my own organization I keep most of my resources on premises, but I use Office 365 for my Exchange e-mail and I have a Windows Azure account I use purely for testing purposes.

It's tough to manage one environment, much less three. The latest breed of System Center is all about letting you manage resources across all three cloud tiers using a single suite of products. System Center can also help you move resources between environments if necessary.

It's important to note Microsoft now makes the same Virtual Machine Manager features available across all tiers. There aren't any special features for service providers. However, some features will obviously be more beneficial in some environments than others.

Emphasis on Standards
Now that you understand the design philosophy behind the new version of System Center, you'll note a key change. The new System Center 2012 R2 is standards-based. Even though you won't see it on Microsoft's list of new features, one of the most important additions in System Center 2012 R2 is native support for common hardware. For example, System Center 2012 R2 natively recognizes a number of different types of SANs. VMM also recognizes a number of different physical network switches.

Hardware recognition is important because VMM is all about pooling hardware resources and making those resources available for allocation. Once resources are allocated, VMM supports self-service provisioning. For example, you might give your marketing department the ability to create up to 10 VMs using resources allocated to that department.

Resource allocation and self-service provisioning aren't new to System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager. VMM has long had the ability to let authorized users create VMs from templates you provide. Since System Center is all about supporting industry standards, Microsoft has added support for creating template-based Linux VMs. There is support for Oracle Linux 5 (x86 and x64), Oracle Linux 6 (x86 and x64) and Debian GNU/Linux 7.0 (x86 and x64).

Another significant advance in System Center 2012 R2 VMM is its extended support for VMs. Although VMM was originally designed for managing Hyper-V environments, it includes support for VMware and Xen Server environments.

Storage Improvements
System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager has a number of improvements related to storage. Some of these new VMM 2012 R2 features are playing catch up with some of the features added to Windows Server 2012. For example, Offload Data Transfer (ODX) support was first introduced in Windows Server 2012, but VMM is only now able to fully utilize ODX.

Similarly, virtual Fibre Channel was also introduced with Windows Server 2012. So clearly, VMM had some catching up to do. VMM 2012 R2 now supports managing Fibre Channel fabrics and automated provisioning for VMs that use those fabrics.

Not every new storage feature is geared toward bringing VMM in line with Windows Server's capabilities. Some of the new capabilities are much more innovative. For example, VMM 2012 R2 now lets you provision scale out file server clusters at the bare metal level. Using a single step, you can both provision and cluster file servers.

Another new feature involves shared VHDX support. In Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft began letting you use VHDX files as shared storage for Hyper-V guest clusters. VMM 2012 supports placing shared VHDX in a service tier.

Virtual Network Support
Besides added recognition of certain physical network switches, Microsoft has made two main improvements to VMM's networking support. First, VMM 2012 R2 offers greatly improved IP address management. VMM now fully supports Windows Server IP Address Management (IPAM).

You can now add an IPAM server to the list of resources managed by VMM. This helps IPAM keep track of addresses (and address settings) used by both logical networks and VM networks. VM networks refer to the virtual networks that have existed in Hyper-V from the very beginning. Logical networks are a new type of networking supported by Hyper-V 2012 R2.

The reason it's important to understand Microsoft's three-pronged cloud strategy is that your organization's resources are no longer confined to a single datacenter. For example, an application might run on premises today. In the future, you might move it to Windows Azure or some other cloud service as a way of improving the application's scalability.

Moving an application to a different datacenter (or a different cloud) in the past was a big job because there are IP address and DNS considerations that you'd have to take into account. Logical networking does away with this problem by letting a VM keep the same IP address regardless of where it's running (so long as the logical network extends to the new location).

System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager fully supports logical networking. Logical networking not only makes it easy to move resources without regard to physical location, but can also facilitate multi-tenancy and improved scalability. It lets each tenant use their preferred IP address space without having to worry about the address space being used by other tenants.

User Permissions Model
Another thing Microsoft has changed in the most recent release of VMM is the user permissions model. You can now grant users permission to user or user roles on a per cloud basis. Previously, you had to create new user roles based on actions, users and clouds. Although this model worked, it really didn't scale very well because if an organization had multiple clouds, you could end up having to create a lot of different user roles.

VMM now lets you create clouds and assign users to those clouds. A number of System Center 2012 reports suggest you create clouds on a per tenant basis. For example, if your organization is servicing only internal users, then each department might be treated as a tenant. Under the old model, this would mean creating an HR cloud, a Marketing cloud and so on. I haven't seen any official Microsoft documentation describing the tenant cloud model as an established best practice, but it does seem to have become somewhat commonplace.

With the release of System Center 2012 R2, Microsoft is making an effort to move its customers away from the tenant cloud model. Instead, Microsoft is encouraging customers to create service clouds and establish tenancy at the user or group level. For example, you might create a lab cloud containing low-end resources and a production cloud containing higher-end resources.

What's Missing?
When Microsoft releases a new version of something as major as System Center, there are almost always some legacy features removed. In the case of System Center 2012 R2 Virtual Machine Manager, there are two main features that Microsoft cut.

First, the preconfigured chargeback report is gone. You can still install the chargeback reports feature and manually create and publish a price sheet, but there's no longer a preconfigured chargeback report.

Microsoft also removed the Physical to Virtual (P2V) conversion mechanism. If you still need to perform P2V migrations, Microsoft's recommended workaround is to use an older version of System Center Virtual Machine Manager. Despite the short timeframe between releases of System Center, Microsoft has still introduced a fairly large number of features.

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