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Cloud Computing: The Power of System Center in the Cloud

Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center can accelerate your adoption of an IT-as-a-service model, which enables greater business agility, scalability and flexibility.

Joshua Hoffman

By now, most of us are familiar with, or quickly learning, the basic tenants of cloud computing. In short, there’s a great deal of efficiency to be gained – in costs, resource utilization, quality of service delivery, and more – by leveraging the scalability and elasticity of shared and virtual computing. The ability to purchase computing resources as needed, which can be expanded or contracted to meet a changing business environment, provides a degree of agility that is difficult to achieve with a traditional infrastructure model.

This concept of IT as a Service – encompassing the delivery of software, infrastructure, and platforms – offers organizations greater flexibility in leveraging the power of IT to meet their business needs than has been ever available before. However, often we think of cloud computing solely within the framework of the “public cloud.” That is to say, as a service purchased from a hosting provider, leveraging resources that are shared with other businesses, and accessible via public networks. But the benefits of cloud computing exist on a spectrum, and often they can be realized in a “private cloud” model; delivering the same levels of scalability and elasticity, along with usage-based cost structures that come with public cloud computing, but leveraging resources completely dedicated to the needs of your own organization.

In this article, we’ll talk about Microsoft solutions, powered by Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center, that can help you simplify and accelerate your adoption of private cloud computing, and in doing so, realize the benefits of increased performance, improved reliability, enhanced business agility and cost efficiency that the cloud has to offer. 

Infrastructure Foundations of a Private Cloud Solution

Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V

The host servers are one of the critical components of a dynamic, virtual infrastructure. The host servers, running Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V technology, provide the foundation for running virtual machine guests and also provide the management interface between the guests and Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

By consolidating multiple server roles into virtualized environments running on a single physical machine, you not only make more effective use of your hardware, but you also unlock the potential to realize the benefits of Infrastructure-as-a-Service, scaling your infrastructure quickly, adding virtual resources to take on new workloads or meet increased demand whenever necessary.

We’ll talk more later in this article about the process of migrating your existing infrastructure to a virtualized, private cloud environment. In the meantime, for detailed guidance on how to get started installing and configuring Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V, see the Hyper-V Getting Started Guide.

System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2

The primary tool for managing a virtual private cloud infrastructure will be System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM). System Center Virtual Machine Manager can scale across a wide range of virtual environments, ranging from a single server for smaller environments to a fully distributed enterprise environment that manages hundreds of hosts running thousands of virtual machines.

There are some key benefits of managing your virtualized infrastructure with VMM, including:

  • Virtualization support for virtual machines running on Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V, Microsoft Virtual Server and VMware ESX
  • End-to-end support for consolidating physical servers onto a virtual infrastructure
  • Performance and Resource Optimization (PRO) for dynamic and responsive management of virtual infrastructure (requires System Center Operations Manager)
  • Intelligent Placement of virtual workloads on the best-suited physical host servers
  • A complete library to centrally manage all the building blocks of the virtual datacenter

System Center Virtual Machine Manager provides a critical layer of management and control that is key to realizing the efficiencies of a private cloud model. VMM not only provides a unified view of your entire virtualized infrastructure across multiple host platforms and myriad guest operating systems, but it also delivers a powerful toolset to facilitate onboarding new workloads quickly and easily. For example, the P2V conversion wizard included in VMM simplifies the process of converting existing physical workloads to virtualized machines. And in conjunction with System Center Operations Manager, the Performance and Resource Optimization feature provides dynamic reallocation of virtualized workloads to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your physical hardware resources.

For detailed guidance on how to get started installing and configuring System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, see the Virtual Machine Manager Deployment Guide.

SCVMM 2008 R2 Self-Service Portal 2.0

Self-service functionality is a core component of delivering IT as a service. Using the Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal 2.0, enterprise datacenters can provide Infrastructure-as-a-Service to business units within their own organization. The self-service portal provides a way for groups within a business to manage their own IT needs while the centralized infrastructure organization manages a pool of physical resources (servers, networks, and related hardware).

The self-service portal has four components:

  • VMSSP website. A Web-based component that provides a user interface to the self-service portal. Through the VMMSSP website, infrastructure administrators can perform various tasks such as pooling infrastructure assets in the self-service portal, extending virtual machine actions, creating business unit and infrastructure requests, validating and approving requests, and provisioning virtual machines (using the self-service virtual machine provisioning feature). Administrators can also use the VMMSSP website to view information related to these tasks.
  • VMMSSP database. A SQL Server database that stores information about configured assets, information related to business units and requests, and information about what has been provisioned to various business units. The database also stores the XML that encodes default and customized virtual machine actions and other information related to the configuration of the self-service portal.
  • VMMSSP server. A Windows service that runs default and customized virtual machine actions that the user requests through the VMMSSP website.
  • Reporting Dashboard. A reporting service built on Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 SP2. The Dashboard provides out-of-the-box reports and the ability to quickly produce custom reports.

Business units that enroll in the self-service portal system can use the portal to address a number of key functions. For example, through the use of standardized forms, business units can request new infrastructures or changes to existing infrastructure components. Each business unit can submit requests to the infrastructure administrator. The standardized forms ensure that the infrastructure administrator has all of the information needed to fulfill the requests without needing to repeatedly contact the business unit for details.

Individual business units can also be empowered to create and manage their own virtual machines. The VMMSSP website includes self-service provisioning forms that business units can use to create virtual machines. When a business unit submits a request to create virtual machines, the self-service portal starts an automated provisioning process creates the virtual machines more quickly and efficiently than a manual process. Each business unit can also designate its own administrators, advanced operators, and users, freeing IT resources for other tasks.

Infrastructure administrators can realize a number of benefits from the self-service portal as well. By simplifying the process of enrolling business units and defining their needs up front, on-boarding new workloads is no longer a manual task. The self-service portal collects information about a business unit and about the resources they want to set up. The process of validating and provisioning resources for business units is simplified as well. Datacenter administrators can use the self-service portal to assign resources based on business unit requests. Finally, changes to resources follow a request-and-approve life cycle, and the requests remain on record in the database, dramatically reducing the administrative burden of change control and management.

Migrating to the Cloud

Once the key components of your private cloud infrastructure are in place, you can begin evaluating existing workloads and migrating them to your virtualized environment. When identifying the best candidates for P2V conversion, consider converting these types of computers, in order of preference:

  1. Non business-critical underutilized computers. By starting with the least utilized computers that are not business critical, you can learn the P2V process with relatively low risk. Web servers may make good candidates.
  2. Computers with outdated or unsupported hardware that needs to be replaced.
  3. Computers with low utilization that are hosting less critical in-house applications.
  4. Computers with higher utilization that are hosting less critical applications.
  5. The remaining underutilized computers. 
  6. In general, business-critical applications, such as e-mail servers and databases that are highly utilized, should only be virtualized to the Hyper-V platform in the Windows Server 2008 (64-bit) operating system.

As mentioned earlier, VMM simplifies Physical-to-Virtual (P2V) migrations by providing a task-based wizard to automate much of the conversion process. Additionally, since the P2V process is completely scriptable, you can initiate large-scale P2V conversions through the Windows PowerShell command line. See Converting Physical Computers to Virtual Machines in VMM for a complete walkthrough and step-by-step instructions.

Beyond the Foundations

Building your private cloud infrastructure extends beyond the foundations of a virtualized, self-service infrastructure. Though the ability to quickly scale application and service delivery through a flexible Infrastructure-as-a-Service model is a core component, delivering an end-to-end datacenter and private cloud solution goes much further. The ability to monitor, manage, and maintain the environment is critical to the effective delivery of IT services. Additionally, ensuring compliance and good governance, streamlining service delivery based on best practices, and achieving even greater efficiency through process automation are all key pillars of a cloud computing environment. Fortunately, System Center continues to deliver solutions to help you get there.

System Center Operations Manager delivers 360-degree operational insight across your entire infrastructure, whether it’s deployed on physical datacenter, private cloud, or public cloud resources. Providing seamless integration with Windows Server 2008 and Virtual Machine Manager, System Center Operations Manager helps you monitor the state and health of your computing resources regardless of how and where they’re deployed, helping you reduce the cost of IT management by identifying and potentially remediating issues before they interfere with service delivery.

Within a private cloud architecture, System Center Configuration Manger continues to provide the same degree of systems management and administration that IT professionals have come to expect. The ability to assess, deploy, update and configure resources using Configuration Manager persists as workloads are migrated into a cloud environment, giving administrators the necessary assurance that their resources are well maintained and protected.

System Center Service Manager provides built-in processes based on industry best practices for incident and problem resolution, change control, and asset lifecycle management. Service Manager provides integration across the entire System Center suite, including Operations Manager and Configuration Manager, to collect information and knowledge about infrastructure operations, and help administrators continuously meet and adapt to changing service level requirements. Together with Opalis, a new addition to the System Center suite, administrators can also automate IT processes for incident response, change and compliance, and service-lifecycle management.

Expanding into the Public Cloud

It’s entirely possible that even after building out your own private cloud environment, your business requirements may dictate the need for greater computing capacity than you would want to host or manage entirely on your own. Fortunately, Windows Azure can provide hosted, on-demand computing resources that can be seamlessly integrated with your existing private cloud infrastructure. Business applications can be deployed on the Windows Azure Platform, adding compute and storage resources that scale to meet demand. Using the Windows Azure VM Role, customized virtual machines – just like the ones you’ve built within your private cloud – can even be hosted on Windows Azure resources, providing additional scalability and capacity whenever it’s needed.

All of the solutions we’ve discussed in this article are capable of delivering IT as a Service across private cloud, public cloud and hybrid architectures. For example, the Windows Azure Application Monitoring Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager provides the same operational insight for applications hosted on the Windows Azure platform that administrators have come to expect from on-premises solutions. And System Center Service Manager and Opalis help deliver process automation, compliance, and SLA management with a service-optimized approach that spans your infrastructure.

What we’ve discussed here today is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve shown how adopting an IT-as-a-Service model enables greater business agility, scalability and flexibility than has ever been possible before. For more information on how to get started, be sure to visit microsoft.com/privatecloud.

Joshua Hoffman
Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of ResearchAccess.com, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.