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June 2, 2006 • Vol.28 Issue 22
Page(s) 1 in print issue

Virtualization: At What Price?
It Reduces Server Complexity But Adds More Software To Manage

Virtualization: At What Price?

It Reduces Server Complexity But Adds More Software To Manage

In any data center, there’s a tightrope walk of complexity and cost. Each new system that addresses a problem, such as application performance or security, also introduces a new challenge in implementing the solution, managing it, and training administration staff about the new technology, no matter how compelling it is.

Virtualization, which is a server consolidation technology that helps data centers manage more servers without the hardware investment, is one shining example of how streamlining can introduce new management chores. Servers are “virtualized” in the data center in the same way that WinXP can run in a virtualized mode on a desktop PC, providing access to systems through one portal. The benefits are clear: fewer physical servers to manage and better overall performance.

The Aim Of Virtualization

In the case of virtualization, the “anything new breeds complexity” issue is even more ironic. The whole point of virtualization is to help data centers understand their server architecture, manage it according to ever-more-complex regulations, increase server performance, and hopefully reduce the burden on already over-worked IT staff.

“The trend toward server consolidation is an attempt on the part of IT departments to try to reduce the number of servers to reduce some of the complexity,” says Susan Davis, a vice president of strategy at Egenera. “However, as virtual machine technology becomes more widely used, the complexity problem could actually get worse. As an example, if today a company is managing 100 servers, in the future they may need to manage 1,000 virtual machines--thus adding complexity.”

Companies such as Egenera, VMware, CiRBA, and Opsware all offer virtualization solutions for small to medium-sized enterprises yet understand the dilemma of new data center consolidation technology creating unforeseen IT burdens.

“Virtualization is essentially a trade-off,” says Eric Vishria, a vice president at Opsware. “It reduces the hardware and OS complexity because it gives you a standard layer for the virtual machines, yet there is a complex interrelationship between the host machines and virtual machines at the lower-level software layer.”

Different Perceptions

Vishria notes that virtualization costs only add to the perception of complexity. According to Vishria, a driving force behind virtualization is that, while hardware costs have plummeted in a six-to-nine-fold reversal from just a few years ago, labor costs have risen three times as high as they were in 2000. Meanwhile, while SMEs are investing about 3% of their budgets on hardware each year, labor costs have grown to 10% of budgets and will continue to escalate. Virtualization addresses the rising labor cost issues, but the confusion comes in when data centers consider the fact that adding a new Dell PowerEdge server is cheaper than ever.

Yet, as Davis notes, data centers often underutilize each server for security reasons. In a new security attack, it’s easier for data centers to address one server failure than to load multiple applications on one server that could cause a department-wide crash. Virtualization helps data centers become more nimble and deal with security threats.

Another perception about the added complexity has to do with the hidden costs. One typical requirement for virtualization is that data centers move to a new storage strategy, such as a storage area network, which can add unplanned costs. Virtualization also adds a new software layer that must be managed, provisioned, patched, and configured separately from the virtual machine in-stances. In addition, there’s a new change management process for virtualization at a macro scale, when the current process is focused on existing server-by-server architectures. And lastly, some data centers may be using management software that does not support virtualized environments. All of these issues require new investments in software, hardware, training, and management, which make virtualization more complex.

Yet adding a virtualized environment does lead to more data center savings and does help reduce the complexity of multiple physical servers. The long-term benefits are clear: Dealing with the issue of added complexity with a new technology requires a careful and gradual deployment strategy and wise product choices.

Factors To Consider

Vishria suggests looking closely at admin-to-server ratios before deployment and how virtualization will change the ratios. For example, he notes how Opsware, a virtualization automation system, can change an existing ratio of 15 to 20 servers per admin to as many as 200 servers per admin. This can help data centers set the long-term server growth strategy and see the benefits even during changeover. Some small companies start very slow, adding virtual machines one server at a time.

CiRBA Chief Technology Officer Andrew Hillier says that the best tip for reducing complexity is to tightly manage each virtualized instance as though it were a physical server. He also explains that data centers should be vigilant about hardware SKU variances, which is a common cause for virtual machine compatibility issues.

“Small and medium-sized businesses need to be very aware of the collateral costs of virtualization products,” says William P. Hurley, a senior analyst at Data Mobility Group. “The core VMware offering is relatively inexpensive now, but the tools that make it a viable option raise the capital expense and operational costs dramatically. Businesses in this category must also consider the impact to storage before implementing virtualization, usually deployed during a consolidation exercise. X86/x64 server virtualization works well with direct attached storage but is even more cost beneficial with SAN, which allows for shared resources on the ‘back-end.’ However, many SMBs are unfamiliar with Fibre Channel technology and may not be in a position to introduce two new core technologies at once.”

Learning the new processes and technology also requires a planned, systematic approach. That’s why most virtualization providers rarely (if ever) see a company make a sweeping investment in virtualization, due to the complexity hurdles. The prime lesson: Going slow, even with the performance and management gains, is always a wise best practice for companies of any size, with any bottom line.

by John Brandon

Virtualization Requirements

For each virtualization company, requirements are typically not as high as other technology deployments, but in some cases, unexpected costs arise. Costs and complexity arise when companies considering virtualization do not plan for the ancillary equipment needs or are not a prime candidate for the technology.

The main criteria for reducing complexity include:

Realizing the new storage requirements. Virtualization typically requires a SAN or NAS, not local server storage.

A pre-existing server complexity. In some cases, small to midsized enterprises consider virtualization because it can help with performance and management, but the initial costs are too high unless they already have a high number of physical servers, such as 25 or more.

Willingness to invest in the training requirements. Because virtualization adds a new software layer to manage, some IT organizations are not prepared for the new maintenance and assume the consolidation will be more streamlined.

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