5 Cloud Management Platforms for the Enterprise

These days, a lot of the big enterprise IT shops that AHEAD works with have either purchased a Cloud Management Platform (CMP) or are taking a serious look at purchasing one soon. There is a ton of interest in the CMP space right now. As a consultant in our Cloud Management practice, I’m constantly talking to our customers about which of their business needs are driving all of this interest. I’m also answering many questions about what CMP products are out in today’s marketplace – which are the best or most common, and which one should “my” organization pick. And I must say, I love all of these questions! When an organization chooses the right CMP, it can be a huge game changer for their business. It only makes sense that a commensurate level of effort and thought should go into that decision process.

To that end, I thought I would dedicate this article to answering the question of which CMP products are most common in today’s marketplace, as well as what some of the key decision points were for my customers who chose them. To be clear, this will not be an exhaustive list of all of the CMP products and all of their Pros and Cons. I’ll just be talking about the products that I run into most frequently with my customers (who tend to be large enterprise organizations), along with some of their most common reasons for choosing them.

Also, before I dive right into my list, let’s touch on some of the most common CMP business drivers.

Common CMP Business Drivers

First off, for IT shops who are primarily focused on their existing private clouds (typically VMware vSphere-based), I find that their number one reason for getting into a CMP usually revolves around quicker turnaround time for VM and infrastructure requests. They’re typically looking at replacing their mostly manual, multi-week VM provisioning process, with a fully automated process that empowers users to request VMs through self-service, and receive those VMs within the hour – fully integrated with their IT infrastructure and ready-to-go. Once they successfully pass that hurdle, organizations often move on to solving more hybrid cloud kinds of challenges.

This takes us to IT shops who are focusing on expanding into the public cloud. These shops seem to have a more diverse set of needs, which often include things like managing their public cloud spending, controlling which cloud services are available and how they can be used, and architecting their app platforms to live happy, productive lives out in the cloud.

Clear as mud?  OK, I promise to summarize and keep it light from here on out. So without further ado, here’s my list of most commonly encountered Cloud Management Platforms:

1. VMware vRealize Automation (vRA)

Given VMware’s dominance of the on-prem virtualization marketplace, it’s not surprising that vRA is the CMP product that I run into most frequently. vRA customers often fall into the first camp that I mentioned above, who are focused on trying to automate their multi-week VM provisioning process down to minutes. vRA includes an orchestration engine called vRealize Orchestrator (vRO), which serves as its conduit for integrating with all the other systems in the provisioning process, such as IPAM, DNS, AD, CMDB, ticketing, firewalls, etc. I spend the majority of my workday on projects building various CMP integrations with such systems, and from my perspective, vRO has the richest, most flexible, and most user-friendly development/debugging environment out of all the CMP products on this list.

vRO’s maturity and market position have also given it the biggest library of canned integration plug-ins on this list, many of which are free from vendors like Infoblox, BlueCat, and Puppet.  These benefits not only minimize the implementation time and upfront costs of vRO’s integrations, but they also make the integrations much easier to manage and maintain over time.

Another of vRA’s key selling points is its outstanding out-of-the-box integration with the other VMware products, like NSX, vRealize Operations Management (vROps), and vRealize Business (vRB). I’m a huge fan of vRA’s drag-and-drop blueprint canvas, which allows an architect to model their app platform with multiple VMs, networks, and seamless integration with NSX constructs like load balancers, virtual switches, and distributed firewall security tags, groups, and policies. If you’re an NSX customer, then that integration alone is worth the price of admission.

Whew. OK, now that I’ve gotten my personal adoration for vRA out of the way, it’s time to get serious and talk about its competition…

2. RedHat CloudForms

I worked on a Red Hat CloudForms project earlier this year, and I found a lot to like about this product. The most interesting aspect to me was that this single product combined the main features of what would typically be two products on other platforms. It included the self-service portal and provisioning automation/orchestration of a CMP, with the VM analytics and reporting of a monitoring tool. To put that into more VMware-like terms, it included functionality along the lines of both vRA/vRO and vROps.

Another nice aspect of CloudForms was that its public cloud support included not only the usual Amazon EC2 instances and Azure VMs, but also support for the native automation services of those cloud providers: Amazon CloudFormation templates and Azure Resource Manager templates.  These native automation services allow customers to quickly deploy existing and new services as the cloud provider releases them. I found their integration to be fairly “no-frills” but impressive nonetheless, given that as of the time of this article, VMware has yet to include equivalent functionality in vRA 7.X.

Similar to the vRA/VMware situation I mentioned above, most of the customers I see looking at Red Hat CloudForms are already big Red Hat customers.This product seems to be a good fit for customers who are looking at managing Red Hat-centric private clouds, and who also want a nice entry point into public cloud.

3. ServiceNow Cloud Management

My thoughts on ServiceNow’s CMP are based on their Helsinki and Istanbul releases.

Right now, ServiceNow is red hot in the ITSM space. The majority of enterprise customers that I work with all seem to be either starting or finishing big ServiceNow initiatives. In fact, some of the most common CMP integrations that AHEAD does are with facets of ServiceNow.  For an existing ServiceNow ITSM customer, one of the coolest prospects of choosing it for their CMP is that all the most common ITSM integrations, like CMDB, ticketing, and service catalog, are already done, right out of the box.

ServiceNow also compares very nicely with the other CMPs on this list. Its support for on-prem vSphere feels very mature – from my perspective, I’d say it’s actually on-par with vRA in that regard. ServiceNow’s Orchestration tool for building integrations is also really nice. I don’t think it’s quite on par with vRO (yet?), but I would say that it’s a very close second, and building ServiceNow Orchestration workflows is very similar to building vRO workflows. I’ve also been really impressed with its support for not only Amazon EC2 instances and Azure VMs, but also the more powerful Amazon CloudFormation templates and Azure Resource Manager templates.

Lastly, the Jakarta release that just came out has added the option of using ServiceNow’s powerful new CMP engine from their acquisition of ITapp last year. This engine adds new blueprinting capabilities, and a completely re-designed cloud management portal. AHEAD will be doing a blog in the future on ServiceNow’s Jakarta release and how all of the changes affect overall integration of ServiceNow’s platform as a CMP for both on and off-premises cloud management.

4. Cisco Cloud Center

Prior to Cisco’s acquisition of CliQr last year, UCS Director (UCSD) was their main CMP tool, and AHEAD did a lot of cloud implementation work on UCSD with Cisco customers. While UCSD is still an excellent tool for automating on-prem physical infrastructure (network, storage, compute), Cloud Center (formerly CliQr Cloud Center) is now Cisco’s go-to for new CMP implementations.

Cloud Center has a really interesting value proposition around its cloud-agnostic blueprint capabilities. Cisco calls their blueprints “Application Profiles”, and they allow customers to model an application platform with all of its required networking, compute, and storage attributes, and then deploy that blueprint onto any of Cloud Center’s support clouds without any refactoring. Traditionally, if you had created a blueprint in your CMP for a particular app platform for vSphere, when you wanted to deploy that blueprint to Amazon or Azure you would have to completely re-create it.

Cloud Center’s hook is that it masks all the cloud-specific complexity, so you have ultimate portability. It also allows you to do things like prompt the user for which cloud they want on the request form, or use policies and tags to determine the cloud placement automatically. For customers who’ve invested in a strategy that leverages multiple public and/or private clouds, these capabilities can be really compelling.

Much like how vRA lets you easily add VMware NSX constructs into its blueprints, Cisco Cloud Center allows you to easily incorporate ACI services into its Application Profiles. Cloud Center also has a free, very mature integration with ServiceNow that allows you to publish Application Profiles to ServiceNow’s catalog, and leverage ServiceNow to manage requests/approvals. It is certified by ServiceNow and is available in the ServiceNow store.

5. RightScale

Being founded in 2006, RightScale is the most mature of all of the CMP products on this list. I find that RightScale has an interesting mix of strengths, the combination of which can be very compelling to the right customer. For example, RightScale is a cloud-based SaaS, similar to ServiceNow, which speeds up the initial implementation, and wipes away any of the operational complexities around managing its under-the-hood components or performing upgrades.  RightScale lets you create blueprints that can either prompt a user for which cloud to deploy to, or completely automate that decision and hide if from the user. It also has the second-largest list of supported public and private cloud providers on this list (6) – just behind Cisco Cloud Center.

Another really compelling aspect of RightScale is its Optima component, which does an extensive cloud cost optimization assessment. Optima’s assessment reports will make very specific recommendations, complete down to the dollar amounts, for how you can reduce your cloud spend. For example, it might recommend to put certain resources on a schedule, downsize instances, or migrate certain instances to newer, cheaper instance types. A lot of customers get into RightScale initially for this Optima component, but then end up expanding their use into the full CMP functionality.

Conclusion

While all of these products have some great features and selling points, they also have their caveats. Understanding that each business has unique needs and requirements in a cloud platform is critical to successfully matching up the right tools with the business. We work with many organizations to develop scorecards for a multitude of technologies. These independent scorecards leverage the knowledge of the platforms that AHEAD has developed over time. They are weighed and scored for each organization’s unique goals, including technical, business, financial, operational, and security. We find that developing a scorecard with supporting analysis not only provides the due diligence needed to get projects off the ground and running, but also sets the stage for cross-team collaboration as an organization builds its collective goals and roadmap.

AHEAD provides guidance and 8 years of CMP experience to our clients during executive and technical briefings at our headquarters in Chicago. If you would like to learn more about these Cloud Management Platforms, please contact your AHEAD client director or leave a comment below.



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Author: Ted Spinks
Ted Spinks is a Senior Technical Architect at AHEAD. He has over 16 years of IT experience with particular expertise in data center and cloud automation technologies.

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