Server room with people walking

Drawbacks of virtualisation

Virtual servers, virtual software, virtual storage are virtually rewriting job descriptions for IT practitioners.

The development of IT is predicated on reinvention, and this trait can still take some getting used to. The interconnectness of enterprise computing means that small changes can cause big repercussions for existing practice models. Virtualisation in its various forms is cited as a 'disruptive technology', but such buzzwords fail to take account of the knock-on effects on the IT personnel tasked with making it work.

This seems anomalous, because virtualisation hasn't just appeared from nowhere. Market-watchers had long predicted that it would be the highest-impact trend affecting enterprise computing infrastructure and operations, transforming how IT is planned, procured, deployed, managed, and accounted for. As a result, some standard IT working practices are now subject to major change. Both hardware and software can be 'virtualised' - but it is reasonable to assert that the concept is driven by software, embracing both system software (operating systems) and applications; indeed, some pundits suggest that virtualisation has blurred the distinctions between the two categories.

'Virtualisation creates a fork in the road for operating systems,' declares Thomas Bittman, vice president at analyst Gartner. 'Traditionally the operating system has been the centre of gravity for the client/server computing model.'

Now, Bittman suggests, emerging convergence technologies, new modes of computing, and infrastructure virtualisation and automation are changing the architecture and role of the operating system: 'Soon, the days of the monolithic, general-purpose operating system will be over'.

If he is correct, this evolution may not be welcomed by enterprise software engineers who have for decades specialised in operating system environments - be they Windows and UNIX, Mac OSX, or network operation systems like Windows Server or Novell OES. Operating system specialists may be the last of the old-school computer room conservatives, and migration to virtualised worlds will hit them hard. Upstart new virtual operating environments like VMware have far to go to win their respect. The IT profession is moving toward greater crossover between its disciplines. Changes in technology often result in changes to job roles; not just with regard how they work together within a team, but how they interact with non-IT colleagues.

'Virtualisation has brought a key change. Whereas before hardware capital expenditure was made incrementally in accordance with demand, servers estates now have to be built-out in blocks in anticipation of future demand,' explains James Griffin, director of hosting strategy at Star Technology Services. 'This changes the pace of capacity planning. IT operations staff have to work in a different way - in concert with sales, and much more closely involved with commercial planning issues.'

Eplus Technology senior engineer Scott Lowe agrees: adopting server virtualisation technology, for instance, 'isn't all roses for an IT organisation'. Writing in Searchservervirtual-isation.com, he argues that the migration from physical to virtual results in three key challenges: breaking down IT department fiefdoms; possible increases in security vulnerabilities; and greater complexity in change management. Virtualisation 'blurs the responsibilities between formerly distinct IT disciplines,' Lowe says. 'Before, large IT departments were segmented and distinct, consisting of the server administrators, the storage [and] the network engineers, and the security team,' but once an enterprise adopts server virtualisation, boundaries go: 'Now the network group and the server group need to work much more closely together.'

The successfulness of this new collaboration rests to an extent to how well the different jobs within the overall function have collaborated; this differs from department to department. 'It depends on the extent to which a given IT leader encourages an 'all muck-in' policy,' one IT administrator recently commented. 'If there is no demarcation between roles, and colleagues will step outside of their competence 'comfort zones', then the virtualisation approach will work.'

Virtualisation is 'not simply a set of technologies buried in infrastructure; it has important ramifications on the business use of IT, and on business itself,' believes Gartner analyst Philip Dawson, author of report 'Virtualisation Reality'. 'IT 'customers' are often reticent about sharing equipment with other business units, and [thereby possibly] losing control of where 'their' applications - and 'their' - data resides.'

Virtual costing

According to Glyn Heath, founder and managing director at technology consultancy Centiq, IT roles are in some key ways becoming less to do with facilitating, and more about negotiating. 'The change from provisioning physical IT assets to virtual IT assets is changing the relationship between IT and business units inside an organisation,' he believes. 'In a traditional model, for instance, physical assets are fairly easy to cost in the context of a new project proposal. More fixed costs could be attached to individual requirements. In the virtual context the situation can actually get harder to cost, because IT has to calculate how to apportion chargeback to the departments or project groups who are using that server as a part of a shared resource. It's more difficult to work out the metrics; the fact that requirements change all the time over a fixed accounting period also complicates things.'

As observed earlier by Star's James Griffin, the dynamic Centiq's Heath describes is requiring IT managers to confer more closely with their accounts departments to determine costing models that make sense applied to virtualised operations. 'People talk about the convergence of the IT and facilities management departments; the next challenge will be for the IT and finance departments to come to terms over internal charging.'

The virtualised model has also 'blurred the lines between hardware and software competences', says Griffin adds, and this has driven a requirement for re-skilling for both roles. He thinks that the ramifications for IT engineers have yet to be acknowledged from within their ranks. 'It's not a just a matter of upgrading specific skills, it's about acquiring new skills,' he insists; 'but this also creates opportunities for career advancement. The next phase for many enterprises - virtualisation of the desktop - will present some major challenges for IT strategists because there aren't enough IT people who understand the issues involved, such as deciding which applications should stay on-premise, which be hosted externally, and which are better-off in the Cloud. It's not just a matter of swapping out fat clients for thin clients.'

Lastly, according to Gartner's Philip Dawson, the ability to create capacity and assign server volumes virtually increases the speed of deployment by a factor of around 30. This seems like a positive; IT managers, pleased at being able to pull back deadlines, may expect to see such news greeted by colleagues on the user end of these processes; but in fact, Dawson points out, 'where business strategists have been working to a deployment time of maybe two months, a sudden shift to two days might require fundamental changes to business processes'. There is also the possibility that this new 'accelerated' deployment will give rise to the erroneous supposition that to action a request for a new virtual server, all that the IT crowd now has to do is click a few buttons on their provisioning dashboards.

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