Getting started with VMware Orchestrator

VMware Orchestrator automation and plug-ins make some parts of an admin’s job easier, but there is a steep learning curve to move beyond built-in workflows.

VMware Orchestrator hasn’t received a lot of airtime since it was released in April 2009, but this is changing...

and it has now become one of the premier add ons for vSphere 5. Automation, coupled with PowerCLI scripting and powerful plug-ins, makes Orchestrator a tool that no admin should go without.

Author's Note

I would be doing you a grave injustice if I didn’t mention a fantastic new book by Cody Bunch called Automating vSphere: using VMware vCenter Orchestrator. It is a terrific book that highlights some of the best configurations, scripts and tips for using Orchestrator. Cody’s blog also contains a wealth of information on Orchestrator as well as other VMware topics. Not only does his book provide some great tips and tricks but it also gives you a much-needed, complete overview of the Orchestrator client. 

VMware Orchestrator automates tasks such as shutting down a virtual machine, adding RAM or extra vCPUs to the VM, and then having it start back up. But it can be expanded to so much more, including branched workflows, integrating scripting and automatic deployments. Having a basic understanding of how to build integrated workflows using tasks, actions and parameters will get you off to a good start in being able to navigate through the interface and put predefined workflows to practical use.

I have to start with a word of caution: VMware Orchestrator has a steep learning curve. If you want to dig deeper and use more than just predefined workflows, you will need to do some reading, searching and experimentation to fully grasp how things work. In the end, I believe that learning how to create and run your own workflows is time well spent.

Installing and configuring VMware Orchestrator
VMware Orchestrator is available in different formats: as a virtual appliance, a standalone product for a Windows Server installation or an add-on to an existing vCenter installation. I prefer to use the standalone appliance, because you don’t have to worry about setting up a separate database, adding more services to your vCenter installation or creating a new Windows Server instance just for VMware Orchestrator. The vCenter add-on and standalone installer are good options for larger environments, but unnecessary for small- to medium-sized deployments. Installing the appliance could not be easier. Just download disk files and import them into vCenter. The official VMware documentation includes installation instructions.

Once you fire up the appliance, go to its Web page and download the VMware Orchestrator client. An optional Web client is available, which is suitable for tasks such as creating and modifying workflows and administrative tasks in Orchestrator. However, the local client provides more control over your tasks, workflows and other aspects of Orchestrator. Think of it in the same way you think of the vSphere Client. The Web client is good, but the local client is much better.

Using VMware Orchestrator plug-ins and workflows
I’m not going to get into how to do specific things in VMware Orchestrator, as that would take quite a long article (or perhaps a book). Instead, I will offer up some information on a few, cool add-ons and workflows that should make it easier to perform routine (and not so routine) administrative tasks and troubleshooting in your vSphere environment.

The VMware vCenter Orchestrator product page includes several plug-ins, along with supporting documentation. You’ll definitely want to install the Windows PowerShell, Active Directory, vCenter Update Manager and Simple Network Management Protocol plug-ins. VMware’s plug-in documentation includes good workflow and task examples to get you started. Try the VIX plug-in from VMware Labs to automate VMs. A few, third-party vendors have also created plug-ins worth checking out, if they apply to your environment:

There are several predefined workflows included in VMware Orchestrator, with each plug-in and available on the Internet. One site that collects workflows is VMware Scripting, and you can download these ready-to-run workflows for your environment. The VMware Orchestrator Communities site is also a great spot for workflow downloads and general information. In addition, I highly encourage you to visit the vCO Blog, which is the de facto center of the Orchestrator universe at VMware, as it provides more information, tips and tricks.

Finally, I found a workflow example from the virtuallyGhetto blog that integrates an Orchestrator workflow into a product called WaveMaker (acquired by VMware and now open source) to produce a simple Web application. By combining VMware Orchestrator’s workflow and task capabilities with the WaveMaker front-end creation tool, you can create some great user interfaces that initiate a workflow based on an end user’s response. By combining a nice graphical user interface so a user can input what type of VM they want, Orchestrator can then execute a workflow to automatically build the VM, just as the user requested. Time to get coding!

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