Policies and people are keys to managing a virtualization strategy

Keep in mind that a successful virtualization strategy relies on the right policies and people, even if you are rushing to virtualize everything from applications to servers.

If it's human nature to want to keep up with the Joneses, no one can blame IT managers for rushing to a virtualization strategy that touches just about everything: applications, desktops and servers. "Everyone is so concerned about saying, 'I'm 50% virtualized' or 70% virtualized, or 'I'm in the cloud,'" said Robert Thomas, senior IT architect at Christus Health, a 42-hospital organization headquartered in Irving, Texas, that (by the way) operates in a 90% virtualized environment. What he has learned since the start of Christus Health's virtualization journey in 2006 is that "it's important to take a step back and make sure the planning phase is really detailed." In other words, don't rush, but take the time to develop a virtualization strategy.

Thomas was one of a panel of three IT executives who spoke at last week's VMworld conference in San Francisco about their company's virtualization strategy and managing the virtual environment. In addition to a strategy that considers putting appropriate new applications and projects into a virtual environment first, rather than a traditional physical environment -- the panelists spoke about policy and personnel issues that are essential to successful deployments.

Christus Health, for example, has implemented a virtualization strategy that puts the technology first in its VMware Inc. vSphere 4.0 environment. The organization developed two infrastructure standards -- one for application virtualization, in which it provisions one virtual processor and one gigabyte of RAM; and one for database servers, in which it provisions two virtual processors and two gigabytes of RAM. It also established standards for personnel: Only systems engineers deploy virtual machines (VM), for example, and those from templates; and the only people who can modify standards are virtualization engineers. The standardization has paid off in payroll efficiency: Of its 35,000 workers, Christus Health employs two virtualization engineers to support 1,600 VMs.

Medtronic Inc., a large medical technology company that devised the first pacemaker to run on batteries, also operates on a virtualization-first strategy, and hopes to get to a virtualization-only plan. "We're aiming for 85% virtualization by 2013," said Tim Mercil, senior systems engineer at the Minneapolis, Minn.-based company. Medtronic, which employs 38,000 people in 120 countries and 270 locations, has virtualized 55% of its desktops and Tier 1 applications including Microsoft Exchange, SAP and Red Hat Inc.'s Red Hat Enterprise Linux; and runs a VMware ESX environment with 3,200 VMs worldwide.

Everyone is so concerned about saying "I'm 50% virtualized," or 70% virtualized, or "I'm in the cloud." It's important to take a step back and make sure the planning phase is really detailed.

Robert Thomas, senior IT architect, Christus Health

Mercil's virtualization strategy includes VM sprawl containment. CIOs should "build VMs based on what the customer needs, not wants," he said. The company uses VMware's vCenter CapacityIQ for project planning and provisioning, which "rightsized VMs," he said, and vCenter AppSpeed for monitoring tools, proof-of-concept demonstration and application validation. The result? "We're doing a lot better with proper sizing of VMs," he said. "There is minimal server over-allocation and better use of hardware, with more Tier 1 apps migrating."

Not just virtual, but human resources too

Virtualization isn't just about tools, but about people as well. "Everybody's roles get mixed up -- the network and systems administrator duties get blurred," said Jon Schulman, a senior systems engineer at McLean, Va.-based SAIC Inc., a systems integrator that specializes in government contracts. "One of the things we've had to do is separate the duties of systems administrators and network administrators, then institute controls and enforce permissions in [VMware's] vCenter," he said. Outside of IT, it's essential to get business buy-in and provide education for users so they understand how applications and resources are delivered in a virtualized environment, he added.

Companies whose virtualization strategy sorts out the people issues are in a good position to reap its rewards, according to CDW-G, the government arm of technology solutions provider CDW LLC in Vernon Hills, Ill. CDW-G surveyed 600 federal, state and local IT managers about the status of their client, server and storage virtualization, and discovered that proper staffing and training were essential to successful virtualization initiatives.

Moreover, 54% of the CIOs who received a grade of A for virtualization proficiency employed a virtualization-first strategy, according to the CDW-G survey.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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