At its most basic, virtualization makes a single resource, including servers, operating systems, applications and storage devices, appear as multiple physical resources. It can also be used to make multiple physical resources such as storage servers appear as a single logical resource on the network.
Companies are using virtualization to stretch storage resources, consolidate physical hardware servers and lower hardware costs. Lower software licensing costs and better, less expensive access to disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities are two more advantages particularly useful for midmarket IT organizations.
Despite the upside in ROI, virtualization is catching on more slowly in the midmarket than at enterprise-sized companies. A Forrester Research Inc. study released in May revealed that just 40% of 73 small and medium-sized business IT decision makers surveyed had been using server virtualization for less than a year. Eighteen percent reported having one year of virtualization under their belts and another 15% reported two years of usage. In comparison, 27% of 138 enterprise companies reported two years of usage in the same study.
In the study, the reasons midmarket companies listed for adopting virtualization were somewhat surprising. Forty-nine percent of 132 respondents listed improved disaster recovery and business continuity as a very important motivation for getting virtual. Forty-six percent said improved server manageability and flexibility were very important and 38% said they were most motivated by the opportunity to cut hardware costs.
"Virtualization is bringing improvements and problems at the same time," said James Staten, a principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester. Server lifecycle management is one challenge, he said.
VMware Inc., IBM, Microsoft, Citrix Systems Inc. and others offer virtualization management packages for their virtual machine (VM) offerings. But according to analysts, most of these management packages fall short when it comes to the nitty-gritty of traditional systems management.
Fluke Networks Inc. in Everett, Wash., is easing into the virtual management space from the networking side with its wide area network (WAN) optimization strategy. Jason Landers, product manager for the company's NetFlow Tracker, said WAN optimization can improve application performance with more efficient bandwidth utilization for data centers. The company is quickly adding more granular application-monitoring capabilities to allow IT to track the efficiency of VM usage as well. "You have to know where your resources are going, or you don't get the payback you want," Landers said.
Server consolidation is the first thing most CIOs think of when they think "virtualization" and that is a major benefit. Lower hardware costs, a smaller hardware footprint and decreased heating and cooling costs provide fast ROI. But for many companies, hardware server consolidation has birthed virtual server sprawl. Because it's easy and fast to clone servers, many times unused or inactive clones are simply abandoned. "Prior to virtualization, if you decommissioned a server, you'd take it down but now they're just left and you end up with virtual server sprawl," Staten said. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of which applications are running on which virtual servers.
Managing the virtual server
Another challenge is problem or change management. This becomes a problem, particularly when multiple versions of the same operating system are running on multiple virtual servers in the data center. "It becomes a patch-level reliability nightmare," Staten said. One application may need a particular version of an operating system with a particular patch level to run correctly, and if there's a problem tracking it down can be difficult, he added. Tools that can recognize, monitor and fix patch levels depending on the application and its operating parameters aren't available yet, but they will be next year, he said.
"It's easy to get the first 15% of your servers virtualized -- the no-brainer type for consolidation -- but after that you have to deal with the rest of it," said Simon Crosby, CTO at Citrix. Products from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix are focused on application virtualization -- enabling companies to run and manage software from a remote server, virtual or physical.
Sherron Associates Inc., a real estate management company in Bellevue, Wash., is a good example of how smaller virtualized data centers can provide all of the benefits of the technology without any of the headaches. The firm uses three physical servers and eight virtual servers to oversee about 25 separate properties. The company deployed the virtual servers in February, said Gayle Spencer, network administrator for the company.
"We needed to get our legacy accounting package off of our old hardware, and we were at the point where we needed to replace old hardware," she said. All of that would have meant a lot of cost -- probably $10,000 per server, Spencer estimated. The company uses Citrix XenApp to manage the virtualized setup. A third-party company called Moose Logic handles server monitoring, including change management, for Sherron Associates.
New processes needed for virtualized data centers
At Sherron Associates, change management is simple, but at larger midmarket companies with hundreds or even thousands of virtual servers, it's a different story. "Virtualization changes everything -- not just the architecture but even the culture within the business," said Tom Bittman, vice president and chief of research for the infrastructure and operations practice at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
But there are business issues that go way beyond the nitty-gritty of virtual data centers to reach into the vitals of IT, Bittman said. In a sense, IT departments at many companies are becoming victims to the success of virtualization. The reason? Because it's so easy to put up virtual machines, business managers often either ask for more than they need or ask for ones they don't need, period. Bittman said that during the past six months, his practice has received more than 1,700 inquiries from CIOs and other IT managers asking how to deal with the abundance of virtual servers in terms of churning through IT resources. The issue is charge-back -- that is, how to get business units to bear their share of the resource costs of virtualization.
Before virtualization, customers were judicious about server requests. They knew it took a long time to get approval, so they didn't ask for additional servers unless they really needed them. "Now, the business side knows that it takes just two days to get a virtual machine up, so they don't even think about it," Bittman said. "You have to introduce friction into the process. We have to move toward a charge-back system, and we will. We need to treat IT like any other business unit in a company. You have to be able to say 'this business unit, which isn't making any money, is using an inordinate number of IT resources.'
"Virtualization unlocks cloud computing," he added. "Under virtualization, everything in IT becomes a variable resource pool. The business units can no longer be 'service huggers.'"
For many midmarket companies, moving the data center to a 'virtual cloud' either internally or via a third party will become more enticing. "For SMBs, virtual data centers may provide higher quality of service at a lower cost," Bittman said.
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This was first published in November 2008