Virtualization: A Primer

While companies increasingly turn to virtualization to optimize their hardware, it has pros and cons. Plus: the future of virtualization.


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Posted December 17, 2007

Matt Villano

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In the high-tech worlds of corporate computing, networking and data storage, fake suddenly is in.

No, we’re not talking about nose jobs, Botox, tummy tucks or liposuction. And please, get your minds out of the gutter—we’re certainly not speaking of breast implants (at least not here).

Instead, the trend du jour is virtualization, a broad term that describes the abstraction of computer resources to some degree. Using virtualization, companies can make a single physical resource (a server, operating system or storage device) appear to function as multiple resources, or they can make multiple resources (such as servers or even individual PCs) appear to function as one.

The phenomenon certainly is on the rise. Gartner deemed virtualization a “megatrend” in 2005, and a Forrester Research report from 2007 indicates that 51 percent of more than 1,750 companies said they are testing the strategy or have already deployed it, up from 41 percent in 2006.

While virtualization zealots allege that the strategy cuts costs and is good for the environment, opponents say it creates huge overhead, and is dangerous in how it centralizes resources. Tim Mueting, solutions manager at hardware vendor AMD, said that however companies perceive virtualization, there’s no disputing the strategy can be worthwhile.

“When you consider that most servers are running at 10 to 15 percent utilization, at the very least virtualization is a way to start consolidating and get better utilization out of technology,” he said. “In the end, the strategy enables companies to manage their network environments in a much more dynamic way.”

How it Works

Ask 100 different people to define virtualization and you’re bound to get 100 different answers. While some products enable virtualization, virtualization itself is not a product but rather a strategy. The strategy creates an external interface that hides underlying implementations. Put differently, it creates an artifice, or artificial reality.

Within this façade, virtualization comes in many sizes and shapes. Platform virtualization involves the simulation of whole computers. Resource virtualization involves the simulation of combined, fragmented or simplified resources. However you look at it, virtualization is an exercise in optimization, and it makes software and hardware run more efficiently.

In the scheme of things, virtualization is nothing new; the computing approach has been around in one form or another since the 1960s. Some say the phenomenon dates back to the IBM M44/44x system, which was dubbed a “virtual machine.”

In the old days, virtualization only existed in the data center, where network administrators could partition storage servers and make many from one. Today, however virtualization also can enable software that was written for single core processors to be moved onto multi-core processor without rewriting the entire application stack.

Companies in the space are plentiful. VMware, which is operated as a subsidiary of TK-based EMC, is the market leader. Nearly 53 percent of respondents in the Forrester report said they would consider VMware for virtualization, versus just 9 percent for the Virtual Server from Microsoft.

There are scores of other virtualization options too—smaller entities that have made the trend more affordable by “productizing” it. VirtualLogix, for instance, a software firm in Sunnyvale, Calif., incorporates virtualization into connected devices such as mobile phones and set-top boxes. There’s even open-source virtualization software named Xen.

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The Pros

Many small and mid-sized businesses turn to virtualization for the economics. Because they are replacing multiple servers (or other pieces of hardware) with one, hardware expenditures amortized over time drop considerably. Some businesses report a savings of more than 40 percent after two years of virtualization. Others have seen numbers even more stunning than that.

Virtualization reduces costs in another area: energy. Because companies that virtualize require less hardware, they use up less energy to power their technology, and less energy to heat and cool it. Dawn Wells, senior product manager at Verio, a hosting company in Centennial, Colorado, said the economics speak for themselves.

“You’re getting control and cost savings without having to spend thousands of dollars a month as you would if you bought your own stuff,” said Wells. “Who would complain about that?”

At a time when everyone’s consciousness about global warming is rising, another benefit of virtualization is a smaller environmental footprint. This is a natural extension of utilizing less energy; it also has to do with the carbon footprint a company reduces by requiring fewer pieces of technology (hardware takes energy to build, you know).

One final benefit to virtualization is agility. Because virtualized servers are more efficient, they improve flexibility and enable companies to scale and respond to customer demand quickly. Ute Albert, marketing manager for virtualization at HP, said this expedites the speed of deployment across the board.

“When you need to get more resources to an existing workload or bring a new project online, this really is a benefit,” she said. “I don’t care what industry you’re in—there are a lots of examples where faster time to market counts.”

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Tags: Microsoft, virtualization, HP, AMD, VMware

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