VMFS Recovery™
Recover data from damaged or formatted VMFS disks or VMDK files
Recover data from damaged or formatted VMFS disks or VMDK files
Last updated: May 06, 2024

VM Sprawl (Virtualization Sprawl)

Virtual Machine (VM) sprawl is a scenario in which an organization loses control over its virtual machine environment due to rapid and uncoordinated VM creation. This phenomenon typically occurs in environments where virtualization has reduced the physical and financial barriers to deploying new servers, leading to a proliferation of VMs that are underutilized, improperly configured, or forgotten entirely. VM sprawl can have several detrimental effects, including increased costs, reduced performance, and heightened security vulnerabilities, as it becomes challenging to keep track of which VMs are serving critical functions and which are redundant or obsolete.

To tackle VM sprawl effectively, organizations must implement a combination of strategies focused on improving visibility, enforcing policies, and optimizing resource utilization. This article will explore the roots of VM sprawl and outline actionable steps that can be taken to prevent it. These steps include establishing a comprehensive VM lifecycle management process, implementing stringent provisioning and de-provisioning policies, regularly auditing and monitoring VM usage, and employing automation tools for better governance. By taking these measures, organizations can ensure their virtual environments remain efficient, secure, and aligned with their overall IT strategy.

Introduction to VM Sprawl

Virtual Machine (VM) sprawl is a critical issue in the era of virtualization, affecting organizations' IT infrastructure efficiency, security, and cost-effectiveness. As businesses increasingly turn to virtualization to optimize their resources, understanding and managing VM sprawl has become essential. This section introduces the concept of VM sprawl, delves into its underlying causes, such as system sprawl and server virtualization, and outlines the risks associated with unchecked VM growth.

What is VM sprawl?

VM sprawl occurs when the number of virtual machines in an organization's network grows uncontrollably, leading to a cluttered, unmanageable IT environment. This situation often arises from the ease of deploying new VMs without corresponding increases in management or oversight. As virtual machines proliferate, organizations may find themselves grappling with a myriad of underused, forgotten, or redundant VMs, each consuming valuable resources and complicating the IT landscape.

What is system sprawl?

System sprawl refers to the broader issue of uncontrolled growth and spread of IT systems within an organization. This phenomenon encompasses not just virtual machines but also physical servers, software applications, and various IT services that expand beyond manageable limits. Like VM sprawl, system sprawl can lead to inefficiencies, higher costs, and increased complexity, making it challenging for IT departments to maintain control and ensure optimal performance.

What exactly is server virtualization?

Server virtualization is a technology that allows multiple, isolated virtual environments to be created on a single physical server. These virtual environments, or virtual machines, can run their own operating systems and applications independently. By abstracting the hardware and distributing its capabilities among several VMs, server virtualization maximizes resource utilization, improves scalability, and enhances flexibility. It is the foundation upon which modern virtualized IT infrastructures are built, enabling significant efficiencies but also introducing the potential for VM sprawl if not properly managed.

What are the risks associated with virtual machine sprawl?

VM sprawl presents several risks that can compromise an organization's IT strategy and operational efficiency. Key risks include:

  • Resource Wastage: Unused or underutilized VMs consume storage, memory, and processing power that could be allocated to critical applications, leading to inefficient resource use.
  • Increased Costs: Each VM incurs costs related to licensing, maintenance, and infrastructure. Sprawl can therefore directly impact an organization's IT budget.
  • Security Vulnerabilities: With more VMs than can be effectively monitored or managed, security protocols may be inconsistently applied, leaving systems open to breaches.
  • Operational Complexity: A cluttered virtual environment complicates management tasks, such as patching, updates, and troubleshooting, potentially leading to decreased system reliability and increased downtime.
  • Compliance Challenges: Ensuring compliance with industry regulations becomes more difficult as the number of VMs grows, especially if some hold sensitive or regulated data.

Challenges of VM Sprawl

VM sprawl, while a testament to the scalability and flexibility of virtualization, introduces a complex array of challenges for IT departments. These challenges can strain resources, complicate management tasks, and expose organizations to increased security risks. Understanding these issues is the first step in devising effective strategies to combat VM sprawl.

VM sprawl poses several challenges:

  • Resource Management Difficulties: One of the most immediate impacts of VM sprawl is the strain it puts on IT resources. Virtual machines, whether in use or not, consume valuable resources like CPU cycles, memory, storage, and network bandwidth. This can lead to performance degradation for other critical services and applications, as they compete for the same underlying physical resources.
  • Increased Operational Costs: The proliferation of VMs can lead to increased operational costs. Each virtual machine adds to the complexity of the environment, requiring more time and effort for management, monitoring, and maintenance. Additionally, software licenses, backups, and infrastructure costs can escalate, affecting the organization's bottom line.
  • Security and Compliance Risks: With VM sprawl, keeping track of the security posture of each virtual machine becomes a Herculean task. Inconsistent application of security patches and updates can leave VMs vulnerable to attacks. Moreover, ensuring that each VM complies with relevant regulations and standards becomes more challenging as the number of VMs grows, potentially exposing the organization to legal and financial penalties.
  • Management and Administrative Overhead: The administrative burden increases significantly with VM sprawl. Tasks such as patch management, performance monitoring, and backup operations become more time-consuming and complex. This can lead to operational inefficiencies and increased likelihood of human error, impacting the overall IT service quality.
  • Difficulty in Tracking and Inventory Management: Keeping an up-to-date inventory of all VMs, including their purposes, configurations, and dependencies, becomes increasingly difficult as more VMs are added to the environment. This can result in redundant VMs that serve no purpose but still consume resources, or in orphaned VMs that are no longer managed or updated.
  • Inefficient Use of IT Budget: Funds allocated for IT infrastructure are not utilized optimally due to the maintenance of unnecessary VMs. Budget that could be used for strategic projects or innovation is instead consumed by the costs associated with managing and supporting an inflated number of virtual machines.

Understanding the Causes

To effectively combat VM sprawl, it's crucial to understand its root causes. The ease of creating and deploying virtual machines, combined with a lack of oversight, can quickly lead to an environment cluttered with unused, underutilized, or redundant VMs. Identifying and addressing the underlying factors contributing to VM sprawl is the first step toward regaining control of the virtual infrastructure.

Causes of VM Sprawl:

  • Ease of VM Creation: Virtualization technology allows for quick and easy creation of new virtual machines. While this flexibility is a significant advantage, it can also lead to proliferation of VMs without proper planning or justification, especially if there are no policies or procedures in place to regulate VM deployment.
  • Lack of Ownership and Accountability: VMs are often created on-demand for specific projects or by different departments without clear assignment of ownership. When projects end or teams move on, these VMs may no longer be needed but remain active due to uncertainty over who is responsible for their decommissioning.
  • Inadequate Lifecycle Management: Without a comprehensive VM lifecycle management strategy, there's a tendency to overlook the importance of regularly reviewing VM usage and decommissioning those that are no longer necessary. This leads to VMs being left to run indefinitely, consuming resources without providing value.
  • Absence of Usage Monitoring and Reporting: A lack of effective monitoring tools or processes to track the usage and performance of VMs contributes to sprawl. Without visibility into VM utilization, IT administrators may find it challenging to identify and retire underutilized or idle VMs.
  • Overprovisioning for Future Needs: IT departments may overprovision VMs, allocating more resources than necessary in anticipation of future needs. While planning for growth is essential, overprovisioning without regular review and adjustment leads to inefficient use of resources.
  • Fear of Shutting Down Important Services: There may be a reluctance to decommission VMs due to concerns about accidentally disrupting critical services or losing important data. This fear, often exacerbated by poor documentation and understanding of the virtual environment, contributes to the reluctance to eliminate unnecessary VMs.
  • Rapid Business Growth or Changes: Organizations undergoing rapid growth or frequent changes in their operations might experience VM sprawl as new VMs are quickly spun up to meet evolving demands, without parallel efforts to consolidate or optimize the virtual environment.

Management and Prevention

Effectively managing and preventing VM sprawl is essential for maintaining a secure, efficient, and cost-effective IT environment. By adopting strategic approaches and best practices, organizations can mitigate the risks associated with unchecked VM proliferation. This section outlines key strategies for managing VM sprawl, preventative measures, and essential security practices to safeguard your virtualized environment.

How to manage VM sprawl effectively?

  • Implement Lifecycle Management: Establish comprehensive VM lifecycle management policies that cover creation, deployment, maintenance, and decommissioning. Regularly review and audit VMs to ensure they are still necessary and align with current business needs.
  • Adopt a Provisioning Process: Create a standardized VM provisioning process that includes approval workflows to ensure that new VMs are deployed only when necessary and with appropriate resource allocation.
  • Utilize Monitoring and Reporting Tools: Deploy tools that provide visibility into VM utilization and performance. Use this data to identify underutilized or idle VMs that can be consolidated or decommissioned.
  • Enforce Ownership and Accountability: Assign ownership for each VM to ensure accountability for its management and utilization. Owners should be responsible for the regular review of their VMs' necessity and performance.
  • Optimize Resource Allocation: Regularly review and adjust resource allocations based on actual usage to avoid overprovisioning and ensure efficient use of resources.
  • Educate and Train Staff: Raise awareness about the implications of VM sprawl among IT staff and end-users. Training should cover best practices in VM deployment, management, and decommissioning.

How can you prevent VM sprawl?

  • Establish Guidelines and Policies: Develop clear guidelines and policies for VM creation, deployment, and decommissioning. These should be communicated across the organization to ensure compliance.
  • Automate VM Management: Use automation tools for the deployment, monitoring, and decommissioning of VMs. Automation can help enforce policies consistently and efficiently.
  • Perform Regular Audits: Conduct regular audits of the virtual environment to identify and address VM sprawl. This should include checking for unused, underutilized, or redundant VMs.
  • Use Chargeback or Showback Mechanisms: Implement chargeback (billing departments for resource usage) or showback (demonstrating departments their resource usage without actual billing) mechanisms to make departments more aware of the costs associated with their VM usage.

What are the best security practices?

  • Regular Patching and Updates: Ensure that all VMs are regularly updated with the latest security patches to protect against vulnerabilities.
  • Implement Strong Access Controls: Use strong authentication and authorization mechanisms to control access to VMs and ensure that only authorized personnel can create, modify, or delete VMs.
  • Isolate Sensitive VMs: Use network segmentation and isolation techniques to protect sensitive VMs from potential breaches in less secure parts of the network.
  • Backup and Disaster Recovery: Implement robust backup and disaster recovery plans for VMs to ensure data integrity and availability in case of incidents.

What exactly is VM escape?

VM escape is a security vulnerability that allows an attacker to break out from within a virtual machine and access the host system. This can potentially allow the attacker to take control over the host machine and all other VMs running on it, leading to significant security breaches.

The difference between Virtual Machine (VM) sprawl and VM escape

  • VM Sprawl refers to the uncontrolled growth and proliferation of virtual machines within an organization, leading to management challenges, resource inefficiency, and increased costs.
  • VM Escape is a specific security vulnerability that involves breaking out of a VM to gain unauthorized access to the host system and potentially other VMs on the same host.

While VM sprawl is a management and operational challenge, VM escape is a critical security risk. Both require attention from IT teams to ensure a secure, efficient, and well-managed virtualized environment.

Recovery and Troubleshooting

Recovering from VM sprawl and addressing common issues requires a systematic approach to identify inefficiencies, implement corrective measures, and establish practices that prevent recurrence. This process not only helps in reclaiming resources and reducing costs but also improves the overall security and performance of the IT infrastructure. Below are strategies and steps for recovery from VM sprawl, along with solutions to common troubleshooting scenarios.

How to Recover from VM Sprawl and Address Common Issues:

  • Conduct a Comprehensive Audit: Start with a thorough inventory of all virtual machines, including their purpose, usage statistics, and resource allocation. This audit will highlight underutilized, unused, or redundant VMs that contribute to sprawl.
  • Implement VM Rationalization: Based on the audit findings, undertake a rationalization process. Decommission VMs that are no longer needed, consolidate similar functions onto fewer VMs, and reallocate resources to match actual usage. This step is critical for eliminating unnecessary VMs and optimizing resource utilization.
  • Standardize VM Configurations: Develop and implement standard configurations for VMs based on roles or functions. Standardization helps in managing VMs more efficiently and makes troubleshooting easier by reducing complexity.
  • Automate VM Lifecycle Management: Utilize automation tools for provisioning, monitoring, and decommissioning VMs. Automation ensures consistent application of policies and reduces the administrative overhead involved in managing the VM lifecycle.
  • Establish and Enforce Policies: Create clear policies for VM creation, deployment, maintenance, and decommissioning. Ensure these policies include criteria for VM usage, ownership, and lifecycle management. Enforcing these policies helps in preventing the recurrence of sprawl.
  • Improve Visibility with Monitoring Tools: Deploy comprehensive monitoring tools that provide real-time visibility into VM performance and resource utilization. Use this data to make informed decisions about VM management and to identify issues early.
  • Regularly Review and Adjust VM Resources: Schedule regular reviews of VM resource allocation versus actual usage. Adjust resources as needed to ensure that VMs are not overprovisioned or underutilized.
  • Educate and Train IT Staff: Provide ongoing education and training for IT staff on best practices for VM management, including how to prevent sprawl and how to troubleshoot common issues effectively.

Addressing Common Troubleshooting Scenarios:

  • Performance Degradation: Investigate underperforming VMs by checking resource allocation and usage. Adjust resources or investigate potential software or configuration issues impacting performance.
  • Resource Contention: Identify VMs competing for resources and consider redistributing resources, implementing resource limits, or moving VMs to less congested hosts.
  • Orphaned VMs: Develop procedures for identifying and managing orphaned VMs, including how to safely decommission them if they are no longer needed.
  • Security Vulnerabilities: Regularly update and patch VMs to address security vulnerabilities. Implement security best practices, including network segmentation and access controls.

If you need to recover VM data

When it comes to recovering data from a virtual machine, especially one hosted on VMware ESXi servers or other VMware environments, DiskInternals VMFS Recovery is a valuable tool. VMFS (Virtual Machine File System) is a high-performance file system used by VMware ESXi for storing virtual machine files, including VMDK (Virtual Machine Disk) files, which contain the virtual machine's data. Here’s a brief guide on how you might approach data recovery using DiskInternals VMFS Recovery:


In conclusion, Virtual Machine (VM) sprawl represents a significant challenge in the landscape of virtualization, marked by the uncontrolled proliferation of VMs that can lead to inefficient resource use, increased operational costs, and heightened security risks. The ease of VM creation, combined with insufficient oversight and lifecycle management, often contributes to this issue. Addressing VM sprawl requires a comprehensive strategy encompassing lifecycle management, standardized provisioning processes, and effective resource allocation, alongside robust monitoring and enforcement of usage policies.

Preventing VM sprawl hinges on implementing clear guidelines and policies for VM deployment, fostering accountability, and utilizing automation and monitoring tools to maintain oversight. Regular audits and rationalization of VMs ensure that only necessary VMs are maintained, thereby optimizing resource utilization and minimizing costs. Education and training for IT staff play a crucial role in promoting best practices in VM management.

When it comes to recovering data from VMs, particularly in cases of accidental deletion or corruption, tools like DiskInternals VMFS Recovery emerge as essential for IT professionals. This software enables the recovery of vital data from VMFS volumes, ensuring that businesses can regain access to critical information with minimal disruption. It highlights the importance of having reliable recovery solutions as part of an organization's disaster recovery and data management strategies.

Moreover, addressing common issues related to VM sprawl, such as performance degradation and resource contention, requires ongoing vigilance and a proactive management approach. Security practices, including regular updates and strong access controls, are critical to safeguarding the virtual environment against vulnerabilities like VM escape, which poses a significant threat to the integrity of the host system and other VMs.

Tip: learn about VMware orphaned VM


  • What causes VM sprawl?

    What leads to VM sprawl? The absence of a structured VM lifecycle management process means VMs often outlive their usefulness without being decommissioned. Furthermore, unclear VM ownership results in these machines persisting indefinitely without proper supervision.

  • What does "sprawl" mean in computing?

    Server sprawl occurs when many servers, which are underutilized, occupy more physical space and consume more resources than their workload justifies. This phenomenon is commonly caused by the proliferation of low-cost, entry-level servers and the habit of assigning single applications to individual servers.

  • How do VM sprawl and VM escape differ?

    VM sprawl describes the unchecked proliferation and overdeployment of virtual machines, creating organizational and efficiency challenges. In contrast, VM escape is a security issue wherein an attacker breaches the virtual machine's isolation to attack the host system or other virtual machines on it.

  • What strategies counteract VM sprawl?

    To mitigate VM sprawl, organizations should engage in thorough monitoring and resource management, employ automation, establish clear deployment policies, educate their teams, and routinely conduct system audits. These steps help in optimizing resource allocation and averting the pitfalls of VM sprawl.

  • What is meant by container sprawl?

    Container sprawl refers to the excessive proliferation of containers within an environment, mirroring the issues of traditional server sprawl but in the context of containerized applications. Despite the operational differences between cloud-native containers and physical data centers, the primary challenge remains: managing costs effectively.

  • How can server sprawl be addressed?

    Addressing server sprawl involves leveraging software-defined infrastructure tools for enhanced server management and adaptability. Employing IT asset management and capacity planning tools also plays a crucial role in preventing the onset of server sprawl by enabling better oversight of IT resources.

  • What security practices help prevent VM sprawl?

    To manage VM sprawl and uphold security, it's important to:

    1. Conduct a detailed inventory of all VMs.
    2. Merge or eliminate VMs that are no longer necessary.
    3. Develop and enforce guidelines for the creation and decommissioning of VMs.
    4. Enhance the security of both VMs and their host environments.
    5. Improve the performance efficiency of VMs and their hosts.
    6. Provide ongoing education and training for IT personnel and users.

Related articles

FREE DOWNLOADVer 4.21, WinBUY NOWFrom $699

Please rate this article.