The explosive growth of today's virtualisation management market is good news for organisations looking to manage and optimise their virtual environments. Like every technology that has come before it, the route to success with virtualisation lies in solid, standardised processes and management software to automate and govern the execution of these processes. Process discipline and streamlined management automation have long been operational mandates, but the advent of virtualisation on industry-standard servers exacerbates these requirements.

Luckily, the growing demand for automated virtualisation management tools has produced an array of software solutions. Many options exist -- too many, in fact -- and you must evaluate these options to minimise the risk of additional complexity and vendor dissolution. Buyers need to be careful in such a young market segment and remain pragmatic about the requirements and the role these technologies will play in the overall management portfolio. The real risk is the creation of yet another silo that will have to be absorbed later on. To avoid future headaches, organisations should include virtualisation as just another technology domain in the consolidated management portfolio.

As businesses begin to evaluate tools to help manage their virtual environment, Forrester recommends focusing on four key system management capabilities; configuration management, capacity planning and VM placement, performance monitoring, and real-time automation. Keep in mind that each earlier step is a prerequisite of the next, making the priority of the list important. For example, attempting real-time automation without first conquering the challenges of capacity management will prove frustrating and ultimately futile.

1. Improve configuration management

It's important to start with improving configuration management because it is necessary to orchestrate the relationship among large numbers of dynamically changing VMs, physical servers, storage, and network resources. These tools are often referred to as "provisioning tools," which refers to a higher state of configuration change management.

2. Maximise capacity planning and VM placement

As your virtualised pool grows in size, you will need tools that analyse capacity trends and optimise where your VMs run to minimise hardware footprint. These tools will be able to alert operations and engineering when resources are running low to guard against overprovisioning. You want to maximise capacity utilisation to squeeze the most value from your server investments, but doing so without sufficient visibility is dangerous.

3. Performance Monitoring

Performance measurement will rise in importance as you increase the number of VMs per physical host and drive up overall utilisation. We find this to be a particularly critical tool as you approach 20 or 30 VMs per physical server. To prevent problems from affecting user experience with multiple apps, your administrators need VM-aware performance monitoring tools that can help pinpoint issues.

4. Real-time automation

Once the virtual environment begins to grow in size and complexity, you'll need tools that can perform real-time automation by adjusting virtual or physical infrastructure to compensate for failures. Many IT services, like virtualisation management, are reaching a level of complexity where sophisticated mathematical algorithms and object models of the services are more precise and efficient than even your most talented engineers.

Reminder: Don't forget the importance of structured processes

Your evaluation of automated tools is a vital part of virtualisation success, but be careful not to overlook the need for structured processes. The adoption of virtual technologies significantly increases complexity, which in turn mandates process refinement. Forrester recommends that infrastructure and operations pros should avoid virtualisation-centric process models that don't mesh with other processes. While the notion of "ITIL for virtualisation" is horribly misguided, a wiser approach is viewing virtualisation as a catalyst for ITIL adoption.

In addition, organisations should expand the scope of ITIL implementations to cover virtualisation management. Movements such as ITIL have proven their applicability to any technology encountered and virtualisation represents just another step in the continuing evolution of business technology. Incident management, as a good example of an ITIL process, is the same process regardless of whether an incident represents a network failure, an application performance anomaly, or a poorly configured virtual server. Unique tools may be employed in pockets of the process execution and high-level escalation will be different, but the process is identical, as are many of the tools (e.g., service desk).

Virtualisation management: Step one in the industrialisation journey

Highly automated process execution is a hallmark of any industrialised transformation, whether it is manufacturing, agriculture, or something else. In fact, automation is a fundamental fueling force that spawns the industrialisation in the first place. The resulting improvements in productivity and consistency have proven to be profound.

IT, and specifically the infrastructure and operations functions are moving in the same direction. Business demands, exploding complexity, and economic pressures are combining to force an upheaval in how we approach IT. The intensive hype over cloud computing is a harbinger of such change. Pursuit of "the cloud" is synonymous with early stage industrialisation of IT.

Virtualisation is the most potent technology catalyst toward cloud computing, so it is therefore the first step in the journey to industrialise IT. The evolutionary track from virtualisation to automation and eventually to various forms of cloud computing form the inexorable path to an industrialised model for business technology infrastructure and operations.

If you want to be in the driver's seat for the future of IT, plan a journey to industrialise your operation and begin that journey by getting your virtual server infrastructure under control.

Glenn O'Donnell is a Senior Analyst and Rachel Dines is an Analyst at Forrester Research, where they serve Infrastructure & Operations professionals. They will be speaking at Forrester's 2010 IT Forum in Las Vegas, NV, May 26 - 28.