FAQ: Virtualization technologies for DR, the desktop and beyond

This FAQ explores how CIOs are expanding the reach of virtualization technologies in their organizations and managing this growth.

It's a fact of life in the world of technology: What (seemingly) only yesterday was considered bleeding-edge suddenly is de rigueur. Such is the case with virtualization technologies.

Just a few years ago, most CIOs were applying virtualization technologies to non-mission-critical systems and services, and just a handful were virtualizing mission-critical applications and pondering its use for disaster recovery (DR). CIOs today have expanded their virtualized environments with the aid of a maturing set of tools to gain benefits in the desktop, storage and DR realms. And as these wade into the deeper waters of virtualization, they're approaching it all with appropriately cautious management strategies.

Table of contents:

What do I need to know now about virtualized desktop infrastructure, or VDI?

Fortunately, enterprise organizations these days increasingly are sharing their desktop virtualization stories, along with lessons they've learned along the way. The main technical recommendations from CIOs who have been there and done that: Take a phased approach to desktop virtualization, and be prepared to invest in many types of desktop virtualization and nonvirtualized technologies to get the job done. Job No. 1 from a user perspective is creating a consistent application and data-service delivery experience for employees regardless of the platform they're on.

As virtualized environments become more mainstream and the benefits get documented, the means by which desktop virtualization is being sold to management are evolving. In some instances, CIOs are selling desktop virtualization with mobility. Experts say the growing appetite for using smartphones and tablets to access desktops remotely -- even if only in a pinch and only for limited use -- appears to be accelerating deployments of enterprise desktop virtualization. In some enterprises, it's no longer the CIO who is doing the selling. Where once IT shops argued and pushed for the technology to solve their desktop administrative and security headaches, now the business is pushing IT to use desktop virtualization to resolve a potpourri of business problems.

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What are some current best practices for virtualization management?

It's imperative that you devise a management strategy for your virtual environment in order to avoid the potential chaos of insufficient resources, missing virtual machines, capacity creep and ad hoc provisioning.

Worst-case scenario, IT leaders will find themselves asking the C-suite for more money to buy virtualization management tools. "If you go to the CFO six months after requesting capital for a multimillion-dollar virtualization project and say, 'I don't know what capacity I have, we're running out of space on clusters and I don't know how to handle it, I need more capital to purchase these tools' -- that puts you in a precarious position," said Chris Wolf, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Even if you're just starting off with a few VMs, key policies are a must-have, including naming conventions for associated resources such as storage, explained Chris Pray, senior engineer of global information systems at Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Without an effective virtualization management strategy, any benefits gained can easily be lost.

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What are the benefits and challenges of storage virtualization?

Server virtualization has led to cost savings through server consolidation, and desktop virtualization promises efficiency gains in terms of desktop management; but storage virtualization is a missing link CIOs can use to maintain efficiencies and savings across the virtual infrastructure.

Schemes like thin provisioning and tiered storage work well, but managing all those devices can soon become a headache. Storage virtualization provides a way to combine all those drives into one centrally manageable resource, which can benefit your customers via time and money savings. Better yet, storage virtualization lets you make changes to the storage configuration without downtime, making data migrations more palatable for your customers.

At its most basic, storage virtualization allows you to pool storage for better capacity allocation and management.

"Data is now in a logical pool, so the IT staff only gives out the amount of storage that is needed, versus overallocating storage, which is what usually happens when storage isn't virtualized," said Mike Piltoff, senior vice president at IT service provider Champion Computer Solutions LLC in Boca Raton, Fla.

Efficiency gains also can be significant: Nonvirtualized storage arrays typically have a utilization rate of about 35%, while virtualized storage arrays give you a utilization rate of about 80%, Piltoff said.

Because storage is being pooled more efficiently, CIOs have a better understanding of how many new storage arrays and devices need to be purchased as their virtual infrastructure grows.

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What is the relationship of disaster recovery to the use of virtualization technologies?

Virtual disaster recovery by no means replaces a full-fledged disaster recovery plan, but virtualization simplifies real-time replication and data portability.

At Independent Bank Corp., headquartered in Ionia, Mich., virtualization is being used from the desktop to the data center to eliminate some of the most common problems found with traditional DR plans.

Missing was a recovery environment that was in sync with the production environment. Before introducing virtualization disaster recovery, configurations between the production environment at the bank's headquarters and the hot site 14 miles away, drifted.

"We had identical hardware in the hot site and the production site, which operationally was a lot of work, and we might not get to a [configuration or data] change for a few months," said Tom McKowen, enterprise architect with Independent Bank, which has total assets of about $3 billion and 100 offices across Michigan. "As a result, we might miss a few steps [between sites]," he said.

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Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.