How to keep virtual test environments in check

Using virtualisation for testing reduces costs and saves money, but environments need to be managed or they can run amok.

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Virtual server technologies used in pre-production environments promise cost, time and labour savings, yet the same tools left unchecked can result in complex configurations, wasted resources and management nightmares for IT staff.

Virtualisation removes the physical server constraints of test environments and enables sharing of resources among IT staff to make test work easier, but its use needs to be carefully controlled, industry analysts and IT professionals say.

"One of the pitfalls of using virtualisation in test environments is the proliferation of images, especially when testing multiple configurations across different operating systems," says Carey Schwaber, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "There has to be a real effort around controlling this environment with policies to prevent the environment from growing too much or becoming unused resources."

Avoiding test-server sprawl

Tim Antonowicz, systems engineer at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, says virtualisation helps his team test software without requiring the build of a new operating system or cluttering a developer's workstation with another piece of software. He has 55 test stage, or sandbox, virtual machines (VM) running.

"Sandboxes are basic VMs where we test and evaluate various software offerings without expectation. If we want to try out something new, run a beta version or just play with a new idea, we roll out a sandbox VM," Antonowicz says.

Using virtualisation in such a way - as a tactical tool for testing - is common. But most IT organisations haven't standardised their use of virtualisation for testing across the enterprise. Different IT groups end up operating their own pockets of virtual servers that aren’t always properly managed or decommissioned. Industry watchers argue the benefits of using virtualisation in test labs have yet to be fully realised because of these inconsistencies.

"It is important to have consistency when testing, and IT needs a comprehensive management approach to ensure proper coordination between physical machines and virtual resources," says Melinda Ballou, a principal analyst at IDC.

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