Virtualization as a Tool for Agile IT

More than a decade after VMware introduced the first software that enabled x86 virtualization, the question facing most IT executives is no longer whether they plan to virtualize, but how far they plan to go.

From Wall Street to Main Street, organizations large and small now avail themselves of the benefits of virtualization. Although the lion’s share of virtualization deployments has traditionally focused on consolidating servers, a shift is occurring:

A growing number of companies are turning to virtualization to readily accommodate growth and achieve added business agility.

"Virtualization is not just a consolidation technology," says Tom Bittman, vice president and distinguished analyst at IT consultancy Gartner. "It’s a speed technology."

Virtualization delivers a wide range of business benefits:

  • It enables single servers to run multiple applications, thereby slashing server hardware costs and reducing data center cooling and power requirements.
  • It allows traditional desktop computing cap-abilities to be extended to remote machines, which can boost application performance, reduce IT’s burden for supporting remote computing resources and add a layer of data security.
  • It makes it possible to abstract storage systems from physical computing assets regardless of the physical location of the storage. This results in efficient use of storage resources and improves disaster-recovery capabilities.

But virtualization efforts also face numerous potential obstacles. Budget and resource constraints cause organizations to hold back: They may want to virtualize to support growth, but feel they don’t have enough people to take on added projects. There are also cultural considerations. In conservative organizations, server-hugging IT folks often are resistant to having their beloved applications run on virtualized machines. "Virtualizing that resource pool requires a mindset change on the part of the technology group," says Ron Anderson-Lehman, who at press time notes that his current tenure as CIO at Continental Airlines will come to an end as the carrier’s merger with United Airlines is approved by shareholders and Federal regulators. "They probably do feel a loss of control."

What’s more, says Anderson-Lehman, companies that move forward on virtualization find they often have to be persistent with reluctant vendors weary of being required to support multiple enterprise virtualization platforms that may force them to tweak their applications.

Selling virtualization to other decision-makers in the enterprise can also be challenging for IT executives. Most business leaders don’t understand virtualization, and IT has a hard time communicating its less-than-obvious business benefits.

"Consolidation is easy to see, visualize, grab," says Greg Schulz, author of The Green and Virtual Data Center (CRC Press-Taylor & Francis Group, 2009) and founder of Server and StorageIO Group, an IT research firm specializing in infrastructure issues.

Everyone understands how trash compacting or carpooling can protect the environment, but when it comes to virtualization, the argument is more difficult, Schulz says, adding that IT managers are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to virtualize 70 percent to 80 percent of their environments.

That’s the big-company view, and it speaks directly to research that Gartner’s Bittman has been compiling. His findings, which have yet to be published, indicate that by 2012, SMBs probably will more than triple the amount of computing workloads they virtualize.

This growth rate is six times what’s expected to occur within large companies. One reason? Small and midsize companies tend to virtualize as much as possible at once, while large companies tend to take a piecemeal approach that often coincides with planned server refresh cycles, according to Bittman.

Obstacles and growth rates aside, any way you look at it, virtualization is finding its way into IT operations of all shapes and sizes–and in all industries. What follows is a look at how three very different organizations are putting virtualization to work.

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