Virtualization: Is it Virtually Irresistible?

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'No question about it, virtualization is the sweetest thing to come along in a long time,'' says T.J. Sylvester, an IT supervisor and system administrator with SSA Global. ''We have developers coming up to us saying, 'I need such-and-such a server configuration just for a week.' I can give them that server in a couple hours.''

SSA Global is a Chicago-based ERP software vendor that's acquired several companies in the past year. Sylvester's delight regarding server virtualization lies in the technology's ability to ease consolidation. But there are plenty of reasons virtualization has become one of corporate computing's hot trends.

Beyond the Physical

Virtualization is, essentially, the use of software to emulate physical devices -- a server or a storage device. Where hardware is concerned, the key bit of code is called a ''virtual machine''; it creates logical partitions so that, for example, a Windows and a Unix computing environment can coexist on the same server, as long as there are sufficient amounts of memory and processing.

The major appeal of virtualization is that it allows IT to reduce its quantity of servers (and their attendant operating costs) by making full use of each server's processing power and memory.

In an influential report on what it called ''Organic IT'' that outlined a vision of the next-generation data center, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. urged IT organizations to implement data center technology that enables virtualization because it ''uncouple[s] logical units of usage, such as an operating system or storage volume, from physical units of operation, such as a server or a disk.''

According to Frank E. Gillett, analyst and lead author of the Forrester report, ''This allows firms to maximize utilization -- and gain great flexibility in moving and managing assets.''

Once the limitations of physical servers and storage devices are overcome, IT benefits in several ways.

As SSA Global's experience shows, it becomes faster and easier to set up requested server environments, because the hardware procurement vanishes. Overcrowded data centers essentially vanish, taking heating and cooling issues with them. And perhaps most importantly in today's budget-conscious world, fewer administrators are required to keep the hardware running.

Down to Three Servers

In early 2004, IT administrators at Subaru of Indiana realized their data center was growing rapidly enough so the Lafayette-based maker of the Outback and Baja would soon need to add IT employees to maintain existing hardware and service pack updates.

''We had 20 to 30 tower machines, all running small apps,'' says Jamey Vester, who works in production control for Subaru of Indiana's IT department. ''We needed to increase efficiency.''

After analyzing options that included a blade server, Subaru decided to use virtualization tools from VMware Inc., an EMC company, to consolidate its physical servers. Subaru undertook a project to implement VMware's ESX, Virtual Center and VMotion as a consolidation and back-up solution.

According to Vester, the virtualization has succeeded on all fronts. Subaru, a Microsoft shop, has reduced those 20-plus servers to three.

''We have a limited amount of physical space, so reducing the room taken up by servers has been great for us,'' Vester says. ''Also, administration is much easier because with only three boxes, you've got a lot fewer hard drives and other moving parts.''

Subaru now runs Web servers, SQL servers, all its Active Directory machines, and 10 to 15 home-grown applications on the three physical servers. ''It's amazing,'' Vester says. ''I can provision someone a new [virtual] server in two to three hours, rather than waiting two to three weeks for new hardware procurement.''

Additionally, virtualizing eliminated the need for a new hire, thus saving Subaru the salary of another Microsoft Certified Software Engineer.

Easing Growing Pains

Server virtualization can be a valuable tool for companies that are rapidly changing, whether they're in acquisition mode or consolidating locations. SSA Global's Sylvester says the firms his company typically acquires have 20 or so servers. Using PowerP2V, a server migration system from Toronto-based PlateSpin Ltd., Sylvester and his team trim the number of physical servers to two. That's important, he says, because in most cases there's no IT staff at the newly acquired company, ''and two servers needing remote support is a lot better than 20.''

Before settling on PlateSpin, SSA Global evaluated similar migration products from Microsoft and Leostream, according to Sylvester. While their functionality was similar, he says, ''PlateSpin puts a front-end GUI on it and does all the work behind the scenes. It really is drag and drop.''

Healthy Storage

Storage is an area that's already been changed markedly by virtualization, and analysts say this trend is gathering additional momentum as new technologies emerge and it becomes clear that virtual storage is a critical pillar of utility computing.

When St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto replaced its data center, the ability to virtualize storage played an important role. According to Ken Westerback, IT architect at St. Michael's, the hospital needed to ''rebuild a decrepit infrastructure right down to the cabling. It was essentially a green-field situation for a series of new applications we wanted to implement.''

As you might imagine in a healthcare facility, end users' top concern was high availability. Indeed, Westerback says, ''That's why we built two [redundant] data centers -- as reassurance for our medical professionals.''

With availability such a priority, local storage for individual servers was quickly deemed too vulnerable, which led St. Michael's to undertake a SAN project with IBM.

Eventually, the hospital settled on IBM's SAN Volume Controller storage-virtualization solution. ''Minimal maintenance and the ability to react'' were important to Westerback's team, he says, adding that vitualizing storage was a key aspect of that.

The SAN Volume Controller has been up and running since late 2003 and is ''exceeding expectations'', Westerback says. ''It allows us to put all our storage behind a virtual engine, giving us complete control,'' he adds. The hospital stores about 20 terabytes of data virtually -- with a single storage administrator.

In the end, it's not unreasonable to say that over the past 15 years, disconnecting the physical from the logical has been the great driving force in IT evolution. Virtualization is an inevitable, and crucial, step along that path.

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