Virtual Admins are Masters of all Trades

Virtualization Reality

Virtual Admins are Masters of all Trades

By TMCnet Special Guest
Alan Murphy
  |  April 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

When virtualization began to spread through the enterprise as a production tool, the first challenge IT had to address was the breadth of technology disruptions. Virtualizing server resources impacts every part of the data center: servers, operating systems, networking, storage, physical architecture – basically every part of corporate IT is touched when virtualization moves in. The next challenge was more personal: bringing the existing IT staff up to speed on managing the expanded coverage lines, or in some cases bringing in new staff versed in virtualization. Either way, IT was dealing with something new: de-segmentation.

Unlike existing technologies in the data center, which are typically segmented by physical location, function, and management group, virtualization isn’t an evolutionary update like moving from 100mbps to gigabit Ethernet. Virtualization is a revolutionary change in how we design and build data centers. Call it what you’d like – greenfield, rip and replace, nuke and pave – but for better or worse this revolutionary change steamrolled its way into IT, and the expertise of IT staff must adapt to meet this revolution.

IT has to move from vertically segmenting roles and responsibilities by siloed function to a horizontal resource model, but that’s not always an easy transition. Virtual administrators need to be experts on each piece of vertical technology first; as virtualization impacts servers, storage, and the network, IT administrators need to be able to manage and understand each of these pieces as well. Virtualization administrators are being asked to be super-administrators. That’s a tall order.

Most IT administrators have grown up in a particular technology that has become their area of expertise.

System administrators start in the OS world, dealing with users, permissions, system images, scripts – all of the stuff that systems need to function. When the systems plug into the network, that’s where the network administrators come in. They start with running cable, building patch panels, adding VLANs to switches, and eventually moving up to LAN and WAN architecture, but they seldom touch storage.

Storage architects deal with file systems, quotas, iSCSI connections and permissions, LUNs, heads, platters, and fiber channel, but often dictate how systems use storage rather than vice versa.

Each silo has its own technology needs and experts to address and manage those needs. Virtual platforms blow all of that out of the water.

Provisioning one new virtual machine touches host servers, multiple operating systems, the network, virtual storage, physical storage, security, and management. These are technologies that already need to be in place before that virtual machine can be provisioned. In the case of agile provisioning or a cloud infrastructure those technologies must be able to support dynamic scaling – they not only have to be configured to work but also configured to grow. Storage administrators are accustomed to capacity planning, for example, but do they know how to plan for a cloud bursting event, and more importantly do they know how their virtual platform will manage this burst on their storage network?

While researching the security risks of virtual platforms about four years ago, I was struck by how much virtualization demands of administrators. They have to be well-versed in all aspects of IT.

But surprisingly, security is one area of virtual expertise that I think is still lacking. It appears that most of the work being done with security and virtualization today is on the network side, segmenting traffic between virtual machines and host servers and keeping private data private. That focus should be applauded; there’s no question that securing the data path is a primary consideration for shared services and cloud computing. But the complexity in which secure segmented networks are implemented and managed in virtual platforms is daunting to anyone but a virtual network expert. This is where network administrators are being asked to step up their game and start dealing with virtual security tools from each vendor and for any external cloud provider IT may be using. This step up model is being repeated for servers and storage, where those administrators are coming up to speed on complex implementations on- and off-premises as well.

We’re just now getting to a point where administrators are growing up with virtualization. It’s going to take a few years before we see administrators who started in the diversified world of virtual resource management. Companies like VMware are helping escalate that process through certification and training – they realize they’re introducing a new architecture model in the data center and they want to help IT departments be successful. Until we reach a point where virtual data centers are commonplace, however, please recognize your virtual system administrators, their amazing talents, and how they’re being asked to stretch their limits. Their job is leaps and bounds more complicated than it was for those of us who grew up in the pre-virtualization world.

Alan Murphy is technical marketing manager of management and virtualization solutions with F5 Networks (News - Alert) (

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Edited by Stefania Viscusi