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March 12, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 6
Page(s) 1 in print issue

Virtualization Overview
This Innovative Technology Continues To Build A Path For A Brighter Data Center Future

Key Points

• Virtualization is no longer a prized pet of large corporations, as it has found a comfortable home in small and midsized enterprises that are looking to cut costs and increase data center performance.

• Companies involved in technology-focused business are inevitably more aggressive virtualization adopters, but non-technical companies are also jumping on board.

• Security, infrastructure management, and licensing are current concerns likely to be addressed by virtualization vendors in the near future.

As virtualization technology continues to mature, it now gives even the most diminutive data center the ability to morph into a silicon-fueled juggernaut capable of tackling almost any task. Today, virtualization’s value is undeniable for data centers looking to cut costs, scale back on space, or simply do more with less.

“We’re seeing aggressive adoption of virtualization all the way down to small enterprises,” says Kevin Brown, CEO of CORAID (www.coraid.com). “Server consolidation is a major driver, but increasingly, these customers are realizing the benefits of IT management features built into the hypervisor. For example, virtualization gives users the ability to quickly clone a complex configuration, facilitate disaster recovery, or manage storage resources, all from the same interface. Previously, SMEs would have had to buy multiple different software packages or do without that functionality.”

Virtualization For All

The concept of virtualization found its roots decades ago in the realm of massive mainframes and big enterprises. But as the performance of processors and other hardware increased exponentially as sizes and prices plummeted, even small data centers eventually discovered they had plenty of spare processing power. Those idle cycles present an ideal opportunity for virtualization, which can boost the depth and range of data centers without requiring new hardware.

“Virtualization may have started in larger firms with dedicated data center facilities and staff, but it isn’t staying there,” says Dan Olds, founder of Gabriel Consulting Group. “We see small and midsized firms using virtualization at roughly the same rate as their larger cousins. We probably see it most in firms that are technology oriented—for example, companies whose products are technology-based or for whom technology is an outsized part of their business model. For firms like this, using virtualization has had a big impact on their bottom line, allowing them to reduce costs and increase IT flexibility at the same time.”

According to Olds, the use of virtualization occurs in split fashion among data centers at SMEs. For technology-centric companies, such as small ISPs, application providers, and hosting companies, virtualization has become a key technology that lets them extract as much as possible from their technology investments. Companies involved with traditional businesses, on the other hand, are typically further down the virtualization adoption curve, Olds says.

“The differences between these two types of customers also extend to how they’re virtualizing,” he says. “Technology-centric smaller firms are more likely to be using tools like VMware, Xen, and KVM. The non-technology firms are more likely to be using Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but general descriptions of what we’re seeing in the market.”

Despite the ever-increasing use of virtualization among SMEs, that segment still hasn’t experienced the widespread, formalized adoption of the technology that’s happened among large enterprises, says Scott Morrison, CTO at Layer 7 Technologies (www.layer7tech.com). In fact, he says that SMEs are still approaching virtualization in an on-off or ad-hoc manner, but virtualization is nonetheless enjoying regular use by QA groups and IT services, which use it for core infrastructure such as VPN servers or backup servers for critical systems such as mail or DNS.

The Virtual Future

The future looks bright for virtualization, but potential changes to the technology and the way it’s marketed could impact data centers that use it. For example, basic virtualization features could become more commoditized by the large vendors, says Scott Feuless, principal consultant with Compass Management Consultancy, who adds that simply running multiple server instances on a single physical box is already considered basic functionality that should have little or no software cost beyond the basic operating system, and that’s a good thing for IT shops.

“There are performance factors that can always be improved and compatibility issues to deal with, and debate over who has the best hypervisor is sure to continue, but differentiation today is more about what you can do with the technology, such as rapid deployment and reprovisioning of resources, to deal with unexpected events like system failures, high-priority projects, or exponential business growth,” Feuless says. “The perspective on virtualization is also beginning to change as the technology is being looked at less as an end in itself and more as an enabler for cloud computing solutions, where IT services are delivered on-demand in an entirely new service model.”

Morrison notes that better underlying security for virtualization is important and that vendors will look to implement innovations to bolster security in multitenant environments (for example, abilities such as automatically wiping disk and memory images after use and blocking images from going into promiscuous mode on the network). Security touches such as these are particularly critical in a shared environment, where other tenants might be hostile, but they’re also beneficial within internal, relatively “safe” environments, he says.

“Management of infrastructure is also critical,” Morrison says. “All of the virtualization vendors provide technology to do this at the high end, but this really needs to trickle down to the lower-end market.” According to Morrison, infrastructure management covers everything from image management, including versioning, rollback, and tools to manage VM sprawl, to utilization, including automatic deployment across commodity processors, optimized use of multicore architectures, and automated and transparent failover.

Morrison admits these features aren’t glamorous and already exist for larger deployments, but they need to be available at reasonable price points for SMEs. Another challenge surrounding virtualization that could be addressed in the near future is licensing, because nobody—including the users, virtualization vendors, and application vendors—is satisfied with the current structure of application software licensing as it pertains to virtualization, he says.

by Christian Perry


Back To Business

Virtualization fills a wide range of needs for data centers, but those that use the technology for different reasons are headed for a future collision, explains Scott Feuless, principal consultant with Compass Management Consultancy. In particular, Feuless predicts a collision between those that are generating demand—corporate business units that need the ability to add resources quickly and easily—and those that want to manage that demand to maintain or improve cost efficiency.

“If you talk to the people who hold the purse strings for the company, the last thing they want to see is demand for IT solutions being filled in a rapid and unlimited way,” Feuless says. “They’ve spent too many years finding ways to cut costs to let a new technology undercut their controls. I think—and I hope—that attention is going to shift to management tools that effectively assess available resources and integrate a streamlined process for allocating, approving, and deploying those resources.”

Such tools, Feuless adds, will provide key measurements around elements such as resource utilization, trends, and service levels that are required for effective management and continual improvement of the environment. Although it remains to be seen whether the tools come from virtualization vendors or third parties, it’s apparent that virtualization will become much less about solving technical problems and more about integrating with business processes, Feuless says.


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