The real era of virtualisation

Virtualising the data centre seems to be a win-win situation, and could play a major part in protecting IT revenues against the recession. E&T reports.

Virtualisation is one of those rare developments in IT when both market research and anecdotal evidence agree about its tangible benefits. It reduces the density of physical assets, brings operational and cost efficiencies, and enables third-party providers of hosting and data centre services to add value to their offerings by exploiting virtualisation's potential for flexibility and diversification. Gains like these mean that virtualisation's success has provided a welcome buttress against a contracting economy.

Also, the virtualisation concept continues to evolve, with pundits speaking of the phenomenon in iterative terms like 'Virtualisation 2.0' (or 3.0 - take your pick), and are even in broad consensus on what these designations actually mean; even if there remain many who are unclear about the whys and wherefores of adopting the virtualisation credo.

"One thing that's for certain is that there is no going back," says Steven Allan, account manager at hosted services provider Melbourne. "That applies to both enterprises virtualising their own in-house servers, and third-party data centre operators." Furthermore, Allan notes, you would be hard pushed to find any site that has virtualised that regrets it.

The principal blessings that virtualisation brings for companies like Melbourne is that it enables new ways to add value to its offerings that would have been nearly impossible in wholly physical environments. "Our clients are realising that they can segment their requirement, and buy different levels of service for different needs," Allan explains. "For some mission-critical applications enterprise users may still need to have a single physical server dedicated to the task; but other, less critical functions can be run concurrently in a virtualised environment. We can support a mix of physical and virtual server resources in a way that was just not feasible before."

This creates opportunities for savvy data centre operators to broaden and diversify the levels of service, informed by a mix-and-match approach: Allan's motto is "virtualise where you can, dedicate where you have to".

However, despite (and maybe because of) the rapidity with which the data centres are embracing the benefits of virtualisation, a lot of IT practitioners are still getting their heads round the meaning and potential of virtualising, according to Allan.

"At the moment, for us, there's a lot of hand-holding," he admits. "We still get a lot of very basic questions from end-users, especially about the issue of monopolisation." This is a concern that, inside a virtual server set-up, bigger customers may monopolise server processing and memory resources, and impinge on smaller clients' resources. "We reassure them that the whole idea of virtualisation is that, if one server is under strain, then others can kick in, and even out the load," says Allan.

SANs make for safe virtual storage

Another emerging characteristic in virtualisation is the fact that the designation should now apply to all IT devices in an up-to-date data centre - and not just its servers. Melbourne's Steven Allan again: "Virtualisation now means virtualising servers and storage," he believes. "This is an important point to get across. Storage is an area where people got their hands burnt in the early days of virtualisation, when the only disk space available was the servers' own." With the advent of storage area networks (SANs), the situation has changed completely. Storage capacity can be added, or moved, as requirements demand, independently of server storage; indeed, the servers do not need to be installed with any onboard storage - another reason why virtualisation brings cost-efficiencies.

Bob Fine, director of product marketing at SAN specialist Compellent, concurs: "If you're going to virtualise, then you have to virtualise both servers and storage, otherwise you'll never get the economic benefits that virtualisation brings."

Fine also believes that ardent virtualisers are now faced with a wider range of options when it comes to deciding which virtualisation environment to install. "VMware isn't as dominant as it was," he says. "Its position is being challenged by Novell, Citrix, Zen and, more recently, Microsoft. This is not to say that operators are obliged to standardise on a single software platform."

"They can certainly mix and match," confirms Billy Keefer, advisor, solutions strategy at IT management player CA. "It's definitely happening. In fact, very few companies have only one virtualisation tool." Although diversity seems to be paying dividends at present, Keefer warns of "virtualisation tool sprawl". Virtualised environments will prove to be just as tricky to manage as physical environments, Keefer predicts: "Anyone who says you need less management [when virtualised] is not talking correctly."

Meanwhile, from the perspective of revenue models, virtualisation solution providers have realised that revenues will not come from providing basic hypervisors - the core software that allows multiple operating systems to run on a host computer concurrently - but from the management and administration tools that sit above it.

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