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A Discourse on How to Automatically, Cost-effectively and Safely End VM Sprawl

This past week I have been in Palo Alto, CA, attending the ExecEvent. The focus of the ExecEvent is to facilitate conversations and meetings between storage industry executives, analysts and press who are there primarily to explore new ways that they can work together and partner on initiatives. It was during this event that a group of us had an interesting conversation on how to automatically, cost-effectively and safely manage virtual machine (VM) sprawl.

As companies accelerate their adoption of server virtualization, server administrators find it easy (almost too easy) to quickly respond to user requests to create new VMs to host applications that they want to test. That’s all fine and good and is one of server virtualization’s many virtues. But the problem that many face is how to best manage these VMs after they are created.

There were two scenarios that came up in our conversation about this topic.

  • Created but unused test VMs. In this scenario, VMs are created and the testing is completed but no one ever gets around to deleting the VMs and reclaiming the storage capacity used by them.

Once the testing is done, the application owner scan (and frequently do) forget to notify the system administrator that they are done with their tests and that the VMs can be deleted and the storage reclaimed. Even on the off chance that it does occur to the system administrator to contact the application owners to coordinate deleting the VMs and reclaiming the storage, the two may never connect.

  • Created and actively running but unneeded test VMs. This is a more serious issue where a test VM is created for application testing. However once the test application is started, it is never stopped for any number of reasons such as the application owner forgetting about it or even being let go from the company.

Both of these situations put the server/storage administrator in an awkward position. In the first scenario, deleting a VM that has not been accessed or used in 30+ days so its storage capacity can be recaptured would seem to be logical. But as any system or storage administrator knows deleting anything without 27 signatures granting them approval to do or there being in place some pre-existing company policy that gives them permission to do so can be a career ending decision. As a result stagnant VMs persist forever.

The second scenario is even more problematic. Again, the server/storage administrator probably does not have any insight into the application running on the test VM or its importance to the organization. So again, stopping the application without prior authorization could be a career ending decision. This leads to it never happening.

The group never did agree on how to best solve the second issue. But we did agree that the technology needed to solve this problem may already exist in the form of archiving software.

If archiving vendors simply apply their existing technology to this problem and manage a VMDK file as just another file, they could solve the following three problems:

  • Free up storage space on production storage
  • Eliminate the need for the server/storage admin to coordinate the deletion of the VM with the application owner since it would be moved to more economical 2nd or 3rd tier storage while still keeping the VM and its application viable
  • The server/storage admin avoids making any career ending decision to delete a VM

The individuals also thought it would be even more interesting if some vendor offered an appliance that accomplished this exact objective for VM environments. By using an appliance, it could be configured and tuned for virtual desktop and server environments and then dynamically deployed into them.

None of us were aware of any companies that offered such a solution. However we thought this would make for a great new use case for the deployment of archiving software in virtualized environments and give us something to potentially talk about at the next ExecEvent in June 2011.


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