Using a VMware diagram as a learning and troubleshooting tool

A VMware diagram is more than just a pretty picture. It can map dependencies and uncover single points of failure, all of which demonstrate its prowess as a troubleshooting tool.

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I love maps. I have maps of streets, topographical maps and maps of ancient places. So I suppose it's only natural that I use maps for my work with VMware vSphere as well.

VMware infrastructures are dynamic by nature. Keeping track of where everything is and how it's related can be tough, thanks to features such as Distributed Resource Scheduling, Storage vMotion and High Availability that automatically move virtual machines (VMs) and data.

So using a VMware diagram that factors in these features is very helpful for the following tasks:

  • Isolation. If a problem occurs between points A and E, you can isolate the problem to points B, C and D.
  • Upgrade planning. If I believe my entire network is running on 1 GB hardware but I find a 100 MB switch after I diagram the infrastructure, I know I need to upgrade that switch.
  • Resource allocation. If I have similarly configured ESX clusters, and one cluster has 10 VMs per host on and another has five VMs per host, then I need to rebalance my cluster loads.

Here are three useful VMware diagram tools and strategies for mapping your vSphere infrastructure.

VMware vCenter/vSphere Client map
VMware's built-in mapping tool diagrams real-time relationships among hosts, VMs, networks and data stores. This feature is useful for locating single points of failure between these components.

You can also select the exact relationships you want displayed or hidden, such as host-to-VM, host-to-network or VM-to-data store connections. But these maps are generally limited to virtual components. Therefore, this type of VMware diagram misses a lot of your supporting infrastructure.

Figure 1
A VMware diagram of a small test environment. (Click image for an enlarged view.)

Physical and logical components in a VMware diagram 
Maps of physical and logical components are ubiquitous in any data center, especially for network diagrams. Tools such as Microsoft Visio and the open source Dia diagram not only the virtual environment but also the physical components, including routers, switches and intrusion prevention systems.

Such detailed diagrams provide a broader view of the whole computing and security infrastructure, which definitely helps with troubleshooting communication issues -- particularly when hosts or VMs are located on different physical network switches.

Figure 2
(Click image for an enlarged view.)

Integration of maps from various business units, such as the telecommunications and security departments, can really improve your ability to isolate the root cause of issues within an infrastructure.
Mind mapping
Mind-mapping applications are the new kid on the block. They are designed to help users track and memorize the relationships between different concepts, and this helps in virtual infrastructures because keeping all the pieces straight and how they work together is a massive job. With a diagram, you can concentrate on bigger picture concepts, instead of just the little details. So if there is an issue with the infrastructure, you can call up a map to isolate the problem.

Mind maps, in particular, show the relationships between main topics, also known as ideas, and sub-concepts, which can be images, documents or hyperlinks. Mind maps have the potential to connect the growing number of virtualization components that need to be integrated into an infrastructure, including hosts, routers, storage area networks, Fibre Channel switches.

There are a number of open source mind-mapping software tools available. Feeling a bit like Goldilocks trying out porridge, I discovered that some mind-mapping apps were too basic, some apps were too complex and one was just right: FreeMind, which provides a good balance between functionality and ease of use. It helped me remember how all the parts of vSphere fit together, as well as the configuration details, troubleshooting notes, JPG files and links to VMware documents.

Figure 3
A partial screenshot of a VMware diagram, using a mind mapping application. (Click image for an enlarged view.)

Building a complete map of a vSphere infrastructure, with all the interdependencies, was quite a task. But I produced a very readable VMware diagram that will be useful for troubleshooting issues and serving as a memory aid for implementing vSphere's different features.

People have used maps since time immemorial to navigate around the world and discover new horizons. Maps are just as useful today for navigating the complex technological world, which is our frontier. And it's ripe for exploration and discovery.

This was first published in April 2011

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