What Is Virtual Machine Sprawl (And Why You Should Be Concerned About It)

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vm sprawl

Virtualization is how businesses build and deploy servers for their operations. The admins often opt for a high-specification server and then set up virtual machines as needed.

While this flexibility optimizes resource consumption and minimizes waste, it introduces Virtual Machine Sprawl, an administrative challenge that creates performance bottlenecks and can lead to network congestion and service degradation.

This article will go into the details of virtual machine sprawl and discuss several tips for managing VM sprawl. By the end, you will have a clear idea for setting up an organization-wide VM sprawl prevention strategy.

Table of Content

  1. What is Virtual Machine Sprawl?
  2. Why Is Virtual Machine Sprawl a Serious Issue?
  3. Why Does VM Sprawl Happen?
  4. VM Sprawl: How Does It Become a Problem?
  5. VM Sprawl Can Result in Security Risks
  6. Management Challenges
  7. VM Sprawl Can Quickly Exhaust Server Resources
  8. VM Sprawl Prevention: How Businesses Can Control Virtual Machine Sprawl?
  9. Conclusion
  10. FAQs

Let’s start with an overview of the problem.

What is Virtual Machine Sprawl?

Simply described, VM sprawl (sometimes called virtual sprawl, virtualization sprawl, virtual machine sprawl, or virtual server sprawl) is a network’s accumulation of virtual machines that administrators cannot effectively manage.

The more dependent an organization is on virtualization, the more likely it is to experience the issue of VM sprawl. IT teams might not be aware of sprawl initially because it might happen gradually. The issue is frequently fairly serious when they finally realize it, negating many of virtualization’s advantages. Even when VM administrators are aware of the problem, it might be challenging to locate and eliminate the undesirable VMs.

VM sprawl (sometimes called virtual sprawl, virtualization sprawl, virtual machine sprawl, or virtual server sprawl) refers to an uncontrolled accumulation of virtual machines that administrators can no longer effectively manage.

The more dependent an organization is on virtualization, the more likely it is to experience the issue of VM sprawl. The ICT teams are often unaware of the problem in the initial stages because of the gradual buildup of virtualized assets. The teams start noticing it after the problem becomes acute and the virtual infrastructure shows signs of resource wastage and performance issues.

Even when the infrastructure administrators know the problem, locating and eliminating VMs is a serious time- and resource-intensive activity.

Why Is Virtual Machine Sprawl a Serious Issue?

As long as the problem goes undiscovered because of server resource availability, many admins don’t realize something is wrong with their virtualized infrastructure. However, as the number of inactive or abandoned VMs increases, the volume of available resources and the system’s performance declines.

Even when not in active use, abandoned virtual machines may continue to use resources and run in the background. Since developers no longer maintain them, these VMs also significantly threaten infrastructure security.

Why Does VM Sprawl Happen?

The first step towards managing VM sprawl is to identify why the issue occurs in the first place.

In a virtualized infrastructure, virtualization sprawl can happen for different reasons, including:

  • Creating virtual machines is far quicker and simpler than setting up real servers. In many organizations, users don’t require express approval for creating VMs.
  • Developers often find it easier to spin up a VM. Since developers use several environments, it is easy to lose track of VMs and forget that they exist in test and staging environments.
  • VM owners frequently keep their VMs around in case they need them for upcoming projects.
  • End users don’t factor in resource utilization and licensing costs. In extreme cases, they often consider VMs “free” because they are virtual and don’t use hardware.
  • Many organizations lack standardized practices and governance policies for creating and using virtual machines.

A combination of these factors results in a significant increase in the VM creation rate. Even when the organization has automated housekeeping capabilities, VMs are created much faster than deleted. As a result, the VM sprawl rate slowly creeps up.

VM Sprawl: How Does It Become a Problem?

Thanks to virtual machines, all concerned teams can quickly deploy virtual servers, and administrators can efficiently distribute physical resources as they see fit.

With virtualization platforms, businesses have effectively replaced their (limited) physical server rooms with as many virtual machines as they need for their operations.

ICT and infrastructure management teams need to pay more attention to the fact that there should be no difference between managing physical and virtual infrastructure. While the specifics could widely differ, the essentials of managing both types of infrastructure remain the same.

Without clear standards, procedures, and processes, team members frequently create virtual machines for development and test environments for ongoing projects. Undocumented VMs worsen as people leave the organization and new employees create their VMs without auditing or recycling unused virtual assets.

Because of the lack of oversight, the number of VMs on the infrastructure quickly balloons out of control. The result is Virtual Machine sprawl.

VM Sprawl Can Result in Security Risks

Security is critical for every business, regardless of the industry and service offerings. In fact, businesses invest a significant portion of their budget in protecting their infrastructure, system backup, and dedicated security infrastructure components.

VM sprawl can result in significant security risks because of its direct impact on the infrastructure performance. All these risks can be grouped into three major categories:

  • Virtual machines are left unprotected and unsupervised while security teams determine how to update security. Since these VMs are often undocumented, they are often not included in the patching process. Over time, unpatched active VMs become a severe security risk.
  • Access control is a critical security risk of VM sprawl. Ex-employees can retain access (and control) of virtual machines on your servers. This might result in a serious vulnerability and insider threat that can be easily exploited.
  • Like any other server, virtual machines need to be backed up. Undocumented virtual machines add unaccounted-for load to the system’s backup capabilities. In worse cases, the backup process can entirely overlook these VMs (especially when the backup process is automated), resulting in catastrophic data loss that backup archives cannot mitigate.

Management Challenges

Managing VM sprawl is a significant overhead in server and infrastructure management operations.

Administrators must continuously monitor resource consumption and balance allocation between documented and undocumented VMs. As the VM sprawl increases, the admins must dedicate additional resources and time to maintaining performance for critical business operations.

Patching and updates become unreliable as admins waste resources in patching and maintaining unused or inactive VMs. This increases the workload without a corresponding increase in system reliability and security.

Sprawl can also impact data protection efforts by complicating disaster recovery plans and raising the required number of backups. In addition, because of the unknowns brought on by so many empty VMs, VM sprawl can complicate measuring and predicting resource utilization.

VM Sprawl Can Quickly Exhaust Server Resources

Virtual machines have dedicated resource allocation, even when not in active use. These resources are assigned when the VM is first initialized, and the VM continues holding on to them until they are deleted.

You can easily imagine how quickly a business exhausts server resources as VM sprawl increases.

Many users see the storage allocation as the only resource their VMs consume. In practice, each VM on the server uses a combination of CPU, RAM, and storage resources.

While storage capacity is just a couple of dollars a GB, CPU and RAM are much costlier. Without sufficient management, deploying virtual machines (and adding to VM sprawl) can quickly consume available physical resources.

A related aspect of managing VM sprawl is the additional cost of licenses. License expenses can quickly pile up if the business has a VM template that uses licensed software (such as cPanel, Plesk, or Windows). In this scenario, every VM adds to the overall licensing costs of business operations.

A faster-than-usual rate of resource consumption is an early sign that your infrastructure is affected by VM sprawl.

VM Sprawl Prevention: How Businesses Can Control Virtual Machine Sprawl?

Now that you have read about VM sprawl, how it happens, and the critical challenges it introduces in operations, let’s discuss how to prevent it from affecting your business.

Start With Performance Monitoring

While businesses opt for physical servers with very high specifications for deploying virtualized assets, no server configuration can offer infinite resources.

Ultimately, too many virtual machines running on a server can cause service degradation for routine and scheduled operations. This drop in performance becomes noticeable when users start reporting problems when using customer-facing applications and websites.

Businesses must also take into account the cost of overhead and labor. In addition to monitoring backups, building new virtual machines, and reviewing which systems are no longer required, infrastructure administrators must also manage all the resources and licenses.

A significant VM sprawl rate also makes predicting and planning for the future challenging. This lack of visibility may prevent teams from providing realistic estimates for future infrastructure expansion.

Businesses can meet these two challenges head-on by carefully monitoring system performance and resource consumption. Experts recommend dedicated monitoring capabilities to identify and flag deviations from the baseline patterns.

ICT and server management teams should be prepared to take immediate corrective actions to contain VM sprawl rate and improve system response and performance.

A Three-step Framework For Controlling VM Sprawl

Businesses need a way to control the VM Sprawl rate. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because each business has specific internal policies for VM management.

We’ll present a flexible framework that businesses can adopt and integrate with their existing policies. The steps in this framework simplify VM management and help reduce the number of undocumented and abandoned virtual assets on the servers.

Step #1: Audit

The IT teams should establish a regular schedule for checking the resource utilization of virtual machines. This rolling audit helps identify orphaned VMs, VMs created by team members who have left the organization, and VMs no longer needed.

Step #2: Archive

The audit team may keep a virtual machine but not use it for an active project. In this case, the best policy is to archive the VM to free up resources while saving the data the dev teams may need in the future.

Step #3: Clean Up

After auditing and archiving, the team will still have several VMs on the list. The best way to deal with this list is to delete the VMs to close security loopholes and return the resources to the pool.

The Role of Policies and Procedures

Automated VM management and implementing a multi-step audit and removal process are two essential aspects of limiting VM sprawl. However, the problem can be significantly minimized by building and enforcing relevant policies and procedures. Without appropriate protocols, tools, and monitoring, businesses have to deal with the escalating costs of VM sprawl.

Policies should be focused on minimizing the root causes of the issue. In the context of VM sprawl, the best way of creating effective policies is to start asking the following questions.

  1. New VM: Who can create new virtual machines, and when?
  2. What exactly qualifies as a “viable use case” while creating a virtual machine? Who authorizes VM creation for a specific use case?
  3. What is the procedure for creating virtual machines? How do teams initiate requests for resource allocation?
  4. What is the standard naming convention for virtual machines?
  5. Who has access to the virtual machine infrastructure and administration tools?
  6. How frequently should the team audit the virtual machine inventory?
  7. How do the teams decide which virtual machines are no longer required? Who is in charge of the cleanup and archiving? What is the VM teardown procedure?
  8. What are the resource allocation limits for virtual machines? Are these limits strictly applied to all VMs?
  9. What documentation is required for creating virtual machines? Are VMs mapped to specific projects? What software stack and data can be hosted on virtual machines? Who (an individual, a group, or a client) have control of VMs?
  10. When a team member leaves or switches teams, what is the VM management procedure?

Policies for mitigating VM sprawl should answer relevant questions on the list. This means the guidelines may differ from business to business, but the fundamentals are the same. These policies should address critical VM management aspects such as the naming scheme, choosing when to audit the environment, cleaning procedures, and VM management access.

VMware Private Cloud Can Help Minimize VM Sprawl

When teams are aware of the warning signals of VM and system sprawl, controlling the rate of the problem is not difficult.

VMware private cloud products can help businesses build and manage virtual environments in high-specification bare metal and dedicated hosting infrastructure.


This article discusses the problem of uncontrolled virtual machine proliferation within an organization’s server infrastructure. Organizations should monitor, manage resources, implement automation, set policies, educate internal users, and conduct audits to address this issue. By doing so, they can optimize resource usage and prevent the negative consequences of VM sprawl.

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Q. What is VM sprawl?

VM sprawl refers to the uncontrolled proliferation of virtual machines within a virtualized environment. It occurs when virtual machines are created without proper management, leading to resource inefficiencies and management challenges.

Q. What are the causes of VM sprawl?

VM sprawl results from a lack of monitoring, insufficient resource management, improper provisioning, and the absence of clear policies for VM creation and decommissioning.

Q. What are the implications of VM sprawl?

VM sprawl can lead to increased resource consumption, reduced performance, security vulnerabilities, higher operational costs, and difficulty managing the virtualized environment effectively.

Q. How can I manage VM sprawl?

Managing VM sprawl involves regular monitoring, resource optimization, automation, adherence to governance policies, education of personnel, and conducting periodic audits to identify and eliminate unused or unnecessary virtual machines.

Q. What role does automation play in controlling VM sprawl?

Automation helps prevent VM sprawl by enforcing consistent provisioning and management practices, reducing the risk of unnecessary virtual machine creation, and ensuring efficient resource allocation.

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