As virtualization continues its fast run at transforming IT, many organizations are starting to employ the technology to create and manage transiently configured systems. These systems are typically assembled for a one-off project and torn down at project end. Virtualization is an almost perfect match for this need. IT organizations that employ virtualization for temporary systems rely on software packages called virtual lab managers, or just lab managers for short.
The term "lab managers" doesn't quite describe all of the purposes these solutions are good for. The use cases for temporary virtualized systems cover a wide spectrum, including development, testing software, reviewing new products, running demos, doing in-house instruction, and so on. Lab managers simplify buildup and teardown, while providing many other services whose needs are not easily anticipated until you deploy virtual machines this way on a regular basis.
For this review, I looked at VMware's Lab Manager (which I reviewed in 2006, when it was still sold by the soon-to-be-acquired Akimbi); Surgient's Virtual Automation Platform (which I also reviewed in 2006); LabManager from VMLogix, a newcomer to lab management tools but a pioneer vendor in virtualization technologies; and Skytap, whose product is entirely cloud-based. I found that the products were excellent solutions that greatly simplified management of nonproduction virtualized systems.
How lab managers work
Lab managers are built around several basic features, all of which are implemented in the reviewed products. The software generally runs on its own dedicated server and interacts with a pool of virtualization resources (servers and storage), as well as with a dedicated storage server that holds artifacts I'll describe shortly. In sum, the minimum standard configuration consists of at least three systems: the lab manager, the storage server, and the virtualization host or hosts.