Virtual servers present management challenges for midmarket firms

IT execs get major benefits by deploying virtual servers. But they're also discovering that virtualized environments are more difficult and complex to manage than anticipated.

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New research suggests that as a growing number of midmarket companies implement virtual servers, IT executives are finding major benefits and paybacks. But they're also discovering that virtualized environments are a lot more difficult and complex to manage than they anticipated.

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An independent, CA Inc.-sponsored survey asked 300 top IT executives whether they had realized their primary virtualization objectives. Results were mixed: 63% of U.S. firms and 43% of firms worldwide reported that they had achieved easier hardware provisioning and software deployment through virtualization. Fifty-three percent of U.S. companies and 34% of companies worldwide reported that virtualization had enabled them to lower total cost of ownership. Only 37% of companies worldwide and 42% of U.S. firms reported being able to optimize performance on their virtualized platforms.

Behind these figures are management challenges that companies are only starting to recognize, let alone address, the surveys found. Only 24% of respondents to an Enterprise Management Associates Inc. survey of 627 corporate IT decision makers published last April said they thought virtualization makes security administration easier -- as compared with 42% in 2006. Just 32% said software control and distribution is easier in a virtualized environment, down from 58% two years ago. And configuration management numbers plummeted from 58% to 32%.

The total percentage of respondents who said virtualized servers in the data center actually makes management tasks more difficult was in the teens or single digits. However, EMA research director Andi Mann, who authored the survey report, suggested that respondents underestimate the difficulties, and are likely to change their tune in the next year or so.

Indeed, everything from performance and capacity management to troubleshooting and security administration becomes more difficult in a volatile, multilayered and often heterogeneous virtualized environment, Mann said. Seventy-nine percent of respondents to EMA's survey reported deploying virtualization on a multivendor platform base; half said they were on three or more platforms.

Many corporate IT executives have been slow to deploy tools to manage virtual servers, the surveys agree.

Management vendor NetIQ Corp. surveyed 1,000 companies worldwide, 45% of which are small and medium-sized businesses. Its report, published last August, found that only 21% of respondents are deploying systems management solutions for their virtual infrastructures. Roughly 27% are managing performance and availability for their virtual servers with the same tools they use for physical servers. Seventeen percent are doing just basic monitoring of hardware and operating systems, the survey found. More than half of respondents have yet to deploy security solutions for their virtual environments.

Integrated management is crucial with a virtualized infrastructure, Mann said. For example, "simply triaging an availability or performance issue becomes a major process" since it requires correlating data across a hodgepodge of physical and virtual processes and platforms.

According to the survey from Boulder, Colo.-based EMA, only 25% of respondents are doing integrated management across physical and virtual systems, and only 14% have the tools to perform integrated management across physical servers and a heterogeneous mixture of virtualized servers.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of software tools that manage virtual and physical environments or multi-platform virtualized installations in an integrated fashion, the EMA report stated. Only 21% of management tools in use can integrate effectively with other enterprise system management tools, according to EMA's Mann.

To make matters worse, critical skills are in short supply. Only 31% of respondents to EMA's survey said they definitely have enough skills to manage virtualization deployment.

The Distributed Management Task Force Inc. (DMTF), an organization leading the development of management standards and integration technology for enterprise and Internet environments, is coming up with standardized virtual system interfaces that should "at least provide base-line communication between management tools," Mann said. And management tool vendors are partnering. Meanwhile, he suggested, midrange IT leaders should think about doing their own integration, probably with the help of a systems integrator.

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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