Achieving Agility Through Virtualization

Global competition and faltering economies are increasing the pressure on CIOs to do more with less and at lightening speed . The latest tool in the CIO arsenal to step up agility in response to this market squeeze is virtualization but, like most technologies, it is turning out to be a mixed blessing.

The promise of unprecedented reaction time without additional hardware expense is “undeniably strong” said Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates. “You can reuse what you have with virtualization and can be set up in a manner of minutes to move to a new project.”

Beyond the obvious savings in hardware and time costs, there is the added plus of a lower power expense.

“As well as providing increased resource sharing and utilization advantages, virtualization is becoming an attractive option to businesses looking to improve their carbon footprint,” said Jonathan Robinson, chief operating officer at NetBenefit, a provider of Managed Hosting services in the U.K. “By allowing you to stack numerous virtual servers, this technology reduces the demand for power; sometimes by the equivalent of ten machines down to just one, which is great news for the environment.”

These alone are heady reasons for jumping on the bandwagon but the excitement can lead to disaster. “People dive in with irrational exuberance. Be a little more circumspect,” advises Mann. “The cost and effort can outweigh advantages if it gets out of control.”

Even vendors agree the buzz around virtualization can lead to trouble if excitement overwhelms basic management controls. “Virtualization changes a lot of things but it doesn’t change the need for basic data center management,” said Frances Guida, manager for Virtualization Programs at HP.

As a matter of fact, extra control is advised to avoid a virtual pile-up. “Put a control step in place so you don’t create too many virtual centers and remember to retire them when you’re done,” advises Guida.

Providing virtualization is implemented and managed properly, the benefits are immediate and measurable.

“The one area that really delivers the most consistent and immediate benefits in terms of both costs and agility is server virtualization in the data center,” said Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. He explains that server virtualization “revolves around Windows-based X86 servers and other common low-end servers with Intel and AMD processors, not the high-end servers.”

Beyond initial implementation, Gillett advises the network be set-up to automatically reconfigure to handle the addition of virtual servers and the changing flow of work. “You’ll need to upgrade systems management to take advantage of virtualization.”

Mann agrees that server virtualization offers CIOs the most agility. Virtual servers quickly “set-up to handle short-term projects and then just as quickly scale down again.”

Guida agrees that virtualization is such a boon to IT agility it is causing the “whole transformation of next-gen data centers.” She says the virtualized “adaptive infrastructure” is a certainty in the near future.

HP is putting money on that bet as it recently launched two new products based on server virtualization. In March, HP announced HP ProLiant iVirtualization which integrates virtualization capabilities into the HP ProLiant server platform, allowing customers to rapidly and simply virtualize their server environments.

In May, HP unveiled the “industry’s first software” to analyze and optimize physical and virtual resources in the same way. HP estimates that the software, called HP Insight Dynamics – VSE, will reduce the cost of common data center tasks by as much as 40%.

Even so, not everyone understands how virtualization works and how to glean its benefits. A poll conducted by NetBenefit amongst delegates at the recent Internet World show in London revealed that 30% of respondents are already incorporating virtualization as part of their IT strategy and one in three regards virtualization as a key part of their organization’s future but 67% are still not really familiar with the concept.

“This poll has demonstrated the rising interest in virtualization which we believe people will be hearing a lot more about over the next 12-18 months,” said Robinson. “However, there is clearly still a really big requirement for education on the subject of virtualization and its benefits.”

Of those familiar with virtualization, most are deploying it in servers but a few are venturing into other areas as well.

“Virtualization tends to be deployed for multiple reasons and tends to deliver multiple outcomes,” said Mann. The primary areas where virtualization is being used beyond servers include disaster recovery and storage. Other areas are being targeted as well.

Gillette said that client virtualization is “more hodge-podge, more complicated, less mature and a separate issue entirely.” Virtual storage, on the other hand, he says is an obvious next step in virtualization efforts.

Guida said test and development, and infrastructure are common areas CIOs move to first. The key to success, however, is implementing one area at a time to ensure you have it under control before you move on.

“Don’t get overwrought around the buzz,” concludes Gillette. “The way virtualization is applied in different realms varies greatly and you need to approach it in a highly controlled manner or you’ll see more problems rather than a better solution.”

Agility, after all, means the ability to move quickly in a new direction. Just be aware that the new direction may not be where you intended to go. Consider resurrecting the old adage “look before you leap” but this time that wisdom applies more to where you go with virtualization rather than whether you should deploy it at all.