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Dos and don'ts of vSphere inventory tagging

One new feature in VMware vSphere 5.1 -- inventory tagging -- isn't so much a technical development as an organizational one. Tags allow you to search for and work with virtual machines, virtual switches and other items in the vSphere inventory by their attributes.

Tags -- categorical labels that describe objects -- follow the same best practices and have the same basic issues, whether you're using them for a blog, a warehouse of products or a VMware vSphere infrastructure. VMware tagging replaces custom attributes in vCenter Server.

What are some dos and don'ts of VMware inventory tagging?

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To understand inventory tagging, talk to your company's logistics and purchasing officers. If your business has an in-house inventory and tagging system, you can learn from their efforts and try to harmonize your formats, categories and usage as much as possible. Adhere to corporate standards for inventory and asset management, even in the purely digital realm; it will make everyone's lives easier.

Even a small vSphere environment of a few hundred virtual machines easily becomes overwhelming, especially if we cram VMs onto a single host or small cluster. VSphere tags can help improve VMware management.

Dos. Define tag categories and primary tags before starting your tagging project. Keep your tags and descriptions brief and memorable. Descriptions should be the length of a tweet, not an essay. If you want to write an epic poem about the inherent nobility of your VM, use the notes section of that individual VM. It will still be searchable (only VMs have notes sections).

Research cardinality with regard to tagging categories. Be vigilant about only tagging important things. For example, create a tag category called "Configuration" for Static IP, DHCP, IPv6 enabled, HighIOPS, Reserved RAM and similar attribute tags.

Some tags will be important for users outside of the IT shop. For example, create a tag category called "Department" for tags such as Finance, Sales or another business group. These may not matter until you deploy chargeback, when you'll praise your amazing foresight.

Document everything. Keep a master list of all tag categories and tags, including any interdependencies. Remember that new hires will need to know the system you use.

Consider adding tags for a VM's owners. A VM may support a given department, (e.g., Finance), but is not likely to be under Finance's operational authority. Who has to keep this bucket of bolts flying? Do your developers patch their own systems? Do you assign VMs internally to individuals? Tags are a great way to do that.

Don'ts. Don't use tags. Not everyone needs tags. Small deployments with fewer than 100 VMs are fine without it. If you are getting along fine without tagging and you don't expect to expand the vSphere infrastructure soon, do not bother. Why add one more administrative burden that could cost you more time than it saves?

Under no circumstances should tagging be engaged in as a stealth project. Involve all stakeholders from the beginning. Simple things such as what category you place a VM in can have political implications that you haven't even imagined. Along these lines, avoid jargon or abbreviations that lose meaning outside the data center.

Don't tag for every little thing that comes to mind. You have to maintain this system.

Categories should always have more than one tag, excepting special circumstances. If you have a dozen single-tag categories, it's time to redesign your categories.

One of the most common mistakes that vSphere managers make is to treat tags like Active Directory organizational units. Tags are analogous to inventory information encoded on an RFID tag for a physical product. They should tell you the essentials quickly, and no inventory item should have too many.

Whatever you do with vSphere tags, don't do half a job. Incomplete vSphere tagging is worse than no tagging at all; it runs the risk of missing extant systems when looking to deploy new ones. You can also miss updating extant VMs, vSwitches, data stores and other components with new configurations or patches. Once you start tagging, you can't stop.

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This was first published in March 2013

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