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vCenter Orchestrator: An Easily Missed Diamond in the Rough

Many don't even know that their VMware vCenter Server license comes with an incredibly powerful automation tool for admins.

If you own a license for VMware vCenter Server, you also own free use of vCenter Orchestrator. That tidbit of information recently caught me off guard after a client requested I build a short video training series on VMware Orchestrator v5.5. I had an unexpectedly difficult time merely finding its installation bits. The VMware Web site advertises a downloadable Orchestrator 5.5 appliance, but that appliance seemingly isn't offered as an evaluation.

The place I never thought to look was inside vCenter Server itself. Tucked away in the ISO's vCenter-Server\vCO subfolder was an inconspicuous file named vCenterOrchestrator.exe.

It took me another week to realize the goldmine I'd found. VMware Orchestrator v5.5 can be a godsend for vSphere administrators seeking automation beyond command-line scripting. With a little effort, its plug-ins offer integration into Active Directory and Windows PowerShell, and a small handful of other useful datacenter technologies.

After a day or two of poking around, I could graphically construct a provisioning workflow that would automatically spin up VMs. I even built a multipage wizard that would ask pertinent questions so as to customize each VM as it was built.

Another day of work and I'd integrated Active Directory management and Windows PowerShell-driven OS customization into my workflow. I could birth VMs into contextually appropriate organizational units and global groups, and then customize their OS configuration with a few Windows PowerShell cmdlets. I could even create and destroy user accounts for those pesky developers always in need of the next day's pristine test environment.

I've always believed good systems administrators are by nature lazy. The really good ones will automate the mundane tasks out of their daily to-do list. And so another few days deciphering administrator guides and I'd learned how to customize an Orchestrator webview (hint: You'll need the file found on the client in c:\program files\vmware\orchestrator\apps\lib). That bare-bones webview gave my developers a single link to build VMs whenever they wanted. They were, of course, limited by the rules I'd coded into the wizard.

With a week of work, most of which was searching the Web for useful guidance online, I'd graduated from hand-building developer VMs to giving them a short-enough rope to do it themselves. Not a bad investment in my book.

Yet while the fruit of my labor is a shining example of automation done right, the path to get there was fraught with pound-head-on-table aggravation. While VMware Orchestrator is indeed a diamond, it is also quite rough.

One problem seems to be for whom Orchestrator is really meant. As an IT pro, I could envision a few neat ways it might automate my mundane tasks. But take a look at VMware's free instructional videos and you could easily surmise this tool is meant for developers, not admins. I felt a strangely heavy focus on developer needs, and not nearly enough on those of the everyday vSphere administrator.

That audience seems particularly odd, considering how buried Orchestrator's installer is inside an ISO file only an admin might see.

Also perplexing is Orchestrator's emphasis on raw JavaScript to accomplish much beyond the simplest of actions. The tool arrives with a sizeable catalog of pre-constructed workflows for accomplishing common tasks, but I found myself constrained by my own insufficient JavaScript experience in building anything too exciting.

Orchestrator's JavaScript foundation in combination with its unintuitive (but powerful, once you figure it out) UI feels like a learning curve too steep for the average overworked IT pro.

Confounding, too, is VMware's recent insistence on avoiding anything resembling an installable client. The client in Orchestrator v5.5 runs as a Java applet -- a Java applet! -- which hinders the experience in a few frustrating ways. Older versions used an installed client application that seemed to deliver a superior interface.

In the end, I was able to build the self-service provisioning tool I needed. And, I'm impressed with the result. That tool still needs work before it hits production, but it offers a compelling glimpse into the neat automations you can build should you divert your focus from just the vSphere Client alone.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.


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