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Server consolidation is not all virtualization

In server consolidation, all the hype is about virtualization. Experts say physical consolidation remains just as important -- maybe more.

Server consolidation is about more than virtualization. There are also advantages to consolidating the physical locations where servers are located.

Like large enterprises, midmarket organizations are physically consolidating servers in earnest. But CIOs continue to face many challenges in their consolidation efforts.

Gartner Inc. research vice president John Phelps said organizations are looking to cut back on the number of servers in nontraditional data center sites. Organizations both large and midsized have a large number of servers located in closets and under desks. These servers outside the data center present management challenges for companies.

Phelps said decreasing the total number of sites with servers helps IT organizations provide better service through concentrated IT skills and equipment. Physical server consolidation also lowers hardware costs and facilities overhead. It relieves business units of the burden of running their own servers, and it allows IT organizations that are spread out to lower their head counts. And, finally, getting those isolated servers out of closets and out from other desks makes it easier for IT organizations to virtualize them.

David Heiser, desktop and server services manager at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he's interested in physical consolidation and virtualization. In terms of physical consolidation, his university has several servers tucked away in server closets within individual academic departments. He said supporting those servers can be difficult for his organization because support technicians cannot always reach them during off hours, when some campus buildings are locked down.

Servers outside the data center aren't just a problem for enterprises. Midsized organizations are also looking to physically consolidate servers. Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner surveyed 400 organizations in 2006. Enterprises (organizations with more than 10,000 employees) in the survey reported that they were looking to reduce the number of server locations by 58.8%, from an average of 87.4 sites to 36. Midsized organizations (those with 100 to 999 employees) were also busy, looking to reduce server sites by 44.4%, from an average of 15.3 sites to just 8.5. At the time of the survey, midsized organizations had servers in an average of 7.2 non-data center locations.

About 61% of organizations surveyed by Gartner last year have completed or are in the middle of a physical server consolidation. Only 8% have no plans to physically consolidate. Consolidation through virtualization is growing more common, but it still isn't as popular as physical consolidation.

Phelps conducted an electronic poll of delegates at a recent conference to determine whether they were physically consolidating servers. Seventy-four percent of the more than 200 delegates said they had or were in the process of doing so. About 50% of organizations have consolidated through virtualization, and 12% said they had no plans at all to virtualize.

Phelps identified three leading challenges to physical consolidation of servers:

The No. 1 issue is network bandwidth. The farther away servers are from the clients who use them, the larger the organization's bandwidth needs to be. Phelps said Gartner's consolidation survey found that about 44% of organizations said bandwidth is the leading problem. The second most common problem, at 40%, is internal politics. "Internal politics has always been a problem," Phelps said. "People don't want to give up control of their servers." The need to build a new facility came in a distant third on the list of challenges, at 10%.

Budgets are a challenge.

Roger Martz, supervisor of enterprise servers and configuration, Omaha Public Power District

CIOs need to understand politics and do something about it before it becomes a problem. Respondents who identified it as a problem grew from about 33% in 2005 to 40% in 2006.

Roger Martz, supervisor of enterprise servers and configuration control at the $676 million publicly owned Nebraska electric utility Omaha Public Power District, said he's consolidating servers both physically and through virtualization.

"In Windows, we did a physical consolidation and virtualization," Martz said. "We are consolidating from 10 sites down to four and from 240 servers down to 50. Unix has some challenges in the virtualization efforts. The products on the market are more suitable for virtualization of test and development rather than production Unix servers, so we had to back off virtualization."

Martz said internal politics weren't big issues for his consolidation efforts because of his organization's size.

"We're a midsized utility as opposed to a global organization, so there is a reasonable amount of centralized control of the IT organization," he said. "Politics is not a major issue. Budgets are a challenge. Another challenge which is significant is independent software vendors [ISVs]. Basically this would be the coexistence of software applications from different ISVs [on virtual machines] and the readiness of software applications for virtualization."

Physical consolidation presented Martz with fewer challenges. He said some business units did resist giving up physical control of their servers -- distributed offices wanted to feel like they "own their servers" and were worried that not having servers located in local offices would affect their performance.

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