Virtualization`s New Frontier

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 01-29-2009

Virtualization`s New Frontier

Haven't noticed the dramatic growth of server virtualization? Clearly, you haven't been paying attention.

Hordes of organizations have embraced the technology as they look to consolidate servers, reduce energy consumption in the data center, increase business agility and reduce costs.

But there's life for virtualization beyond the server: The future of this technology likely will focus on client devices, and there's also great potential in areas such as business continuity, disaster recovery and capacity planning.

"Our research has seen future-use scenarios shifting--actually expanding--so that virtualization [for] other than the widely promoted server consolidation [is] growing in prominence," says Al Gillen, IDC's program vice president for system software.

The server virtualization market continues to grow, although it's maturing, according to industry experts. IDC reports that worldwide virtualization license shipments in the second quarter of 2008 rose 53 percent year over year, compared with a 72 percent year-over-year increase the previous quarter.

And worldwide virtualization software revenue grew 15 percent year over year in the second quarter, compared with 32 percent growth in the first quarter of 2008, according to IDC.

Many organizations have launched virtualization strategies, either as part of enterprise server consolidation efforts or to add the systems flexibility that server virtualization offers.

Now virtualization is moving steadily into the realm of desktop and mobile computing, as businesses look to make further cuts in IT infrastructure expenses by implementing thin clients as virtual machines to replace more costly traditional PCs.

IT cost-cutting is likely to become an even higher priority at many organizations, given the current economic climate. That might bode well for the continued growth of desktop virtualization.

Another likely trend is the use of virtualization for business continuity and disaster recovery. Efforts to provide adequate backup in the event of systems disruptions have become a high priority for many organizations, and some believe that virtualization is a natural fit for business continuity and disaster recovery.

Yet another area that seems ripe for virtualization is capacity planning and allocation. Because of the flexibility virtualization brings, organizations can allocate computing resources more flexibly to meet changing needs.

Virtualizing Clients

Virtualizing Clients

CIOs can expect to hear more about desktop virtualization in the coming months, especially as vendors look to capitalize on interest in the area. Increasingly, organizations are turning to desktop virtualization software and thin clients, in some cases to replace traditional desktops and, in others, to gain more control over desktop environments.

"There has been strong growth in desktop virtualization, though the market has started from a small base and is still in the early stages of its market life cycle," says Michael Rose, an associate research analyst covering enterprise virtualization software for IDC. "The trend is being driven by organizations that find current desktop management platforms insufficient and inefficient in particular use cases."

In fact, Rose says, one of the key benefits of desktop virtualization is the ability to satisfy specific management needs that current platforms can't. "Using a virtualized infrastructure to manage desktops provides greater flexibility and efficiency," he says, particularly in change and configuration management.

Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst at Ideas International, agrees that better manageability is one of the major benefits of virtualizing desktops. "Moving the state of desktop computing from the clients to servers allows the desktop environments to be maintained and secured, if necessary, with better economies of scale," he says.

Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers, a major health care system serving the New York metropolitan area, uses VMware Infrastructure and VMware Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to provide a hosted desktop environment. It began using virtualization in its data center as part of a server consolidation project, then looked to expand the technology to the desktop, says Kane Edupuganti, director of IT operations and communications.

Initially, a logical place to deploy VDI was in hospital departments in which user productivity was down because of WAN latency issues, Edupuganti says. St. Vincent's piloted desktop virtualization with thin clients in its emergency department in June 2008 to address latency. After a successful test, the medical centers deployed it more broadly.

VDI gave St. Vincent's not only a solution to the latency issues, but also an instant refresh of old user devices at a much lower cost. It had been spending $1,100 per device before virtualization and now spends about $900.

The hospital operates about 6,000 PCs that are between three and four years old. If St. Vincent's replaces those units with thin-client devices and VDI, it will save an estimated $1.2 million.

The hospital has reduced average downtime to about 30 minutes. Time spent on desktop hardware maintenance and repair is minimal with VDI: St. Vincent's cut the average time desktop technicians spent imaging PCs and setting up and deploying applications from four hours to about 15 minutes for either a desktop or thin client.

"VDI provides us with tremendous ROI from hardware, power, management, data security and maintenance perspectives," Edupuganti says.

Information is securely stored in data centers, and data management is easier because the data is centrally located. In addition, there's reduced energy consumption: The amount of power consumed by traditional PCs is about 150 to 160 watts, Edupuganti says, but with the virtualized desktops, power consumption drops to just five watts per device.

Enjoying Lower TCO

Enjoying Lower TCO

Huntsville Hospital, a not-for-profit hospital in Huntsville, Ala., has deployed 2,200 virtual desktops, mostly in clinical areas, such as nursing stations and patient rooms, and on mobile carts. The hospital also uses virtual desktops to enable doctors' offices to access hospital applications remotely, says network specialist Tony Wilburn.

Huntsville uses VDI and thin-client devices from Wyse Technology in place of traditional desktop computers. Among the key benefits of desktop virtualization is lower total cost of ownership compared with traditional desktop devices.

"We have found that in power and cooling [costs] alone we save an average of 72 percent per year," Wilburn says. The lifespan of the thin clients far exceeds that of traditional PCs, he says, and memory and CPU can be increased at the server, lowering maintenance and hardware costs on the clients.

Other benefits are improved desktop manageability, ease of distribution of software and a reduction in calls to the help desk.

"Using VMware's ability to create templates, we are able to use one image for all our desktops, keeping the desktops uniform and therefore easier to manage," Wilburn says. He adds that the IT staff can deploy a desktop from a template in less than five minutes, compared with the 20 minutes or more needed to build a physical desktop--even when using imaging software.

Improved manageability of desktops is especially important to Huntsville because the hospital is growing quickly: It currently services 900 beds in two hospitals on a single campus, with a third planned for a separate location.

Given that it's in a highly regulated industry, the hospital needed a better way to manage compliance in its desktop computing infrastructure. Sensitive information governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is maintained on virtual desktops hosted in a secure host data center.

"The idea of a virtual desktop is still relatively new in the industry," Wilburn says, adding that there are some implementation challenges. "There has been some push back from vendors about supporting their applications in a virtual environment, whether it is virtual desktops or virtual servers. Over the past year or so, we are seeing the virtual environment becoming more accepted."

One drawback of desktop virtualization is that storage now resides on a storage area network (instead of on a physical hard drive. "[Desktop storage on SANs] may be more secure and have more failsafes, but it is more costly," Wilburn says. "Our desktops alone are taking up more than 12 [terabytes] of SAN space."

Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery

Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery

Industry experts say virtualization increasingly will be used to support business continuity and disaster recovery. Clearly, with so many business operations tied to servers, keeping systems and applications available to both internal users and external customers is a high priority for IT executives.

IDC estimates that server downtime cost organizations about $140 billion worldwide in lost productivity and revenue in 2007. Because virtualization software effectively "decouples" application stacks from the underlying hardware, IDC says, a virtual server can be copied, backed up and moved just like a file.

The firm says a growing number of virtualization software vendors have incorporated the ability to support live migrations. This, plus the decoupling capability, provides a low-cost means of quickly reallocating computing resources without any downtime.

The key benefit of virtualization in business continuity/disaster recovery is the ability to deliver on service-level agreements and high quality of service, IDC's Gillen says. The main challenge is that organizations need some level of redundant infrastructure and the ability to leverage that infrastructure.

"In other words, you can't virtualize one server and get business continuity," he explains. "You need to have multiple servers provisioned and equipped to address this use case."

Marriott International has launched a virtualization effort with the goal of virtualizing 100 percent of its servers. One of the main drivers of this strategy is to improve flexibility and support the company's business continuity and disaster recovery programs, says Dan Blanchard, vice president of enterprise operations.

Marriott has about 45 percent of its Windows and Linux servers running in a virtualized environment, Blanchard says. Virtualization software from VMware (for Windows servers) and Red Hat (for Linux) lets Marriott recover applications and data faster and more reliably, he says.

Business continuity and disaster recovery--as well as capacity planning--motivate his team to use virtualization. "Our virtualization strategy is certainly to save money," Blanchard says. "We're increasing our utilization of servers. But a big part of why we're doing this and have a 100 percent virtualization objective is for that flexibility. We [intend to] have a virtual layer between [all] our applications and servers"--even for servers that are used for a single application.

Business continuity and disaster recovery are functions that "traditional workload management solutions don't address quickly, efficiently or reliably," Blanchard says. "By doing virtualization, we are able to move workload in reaction to any [events] and recover services or move them more quickly than we've ever been able to do in the past."

Marriott operates several server farms within its data centers, and the servers in those farms are being virtualized. The company is constructing a new underground Recovery and Development Center (RDC) (which was scheduled to open in January) to handle workloads in the event of a service interruption in its main data center.

"When it becomes a business recovery problem, we are positioned to move workloads between the centers," Blanchard says. "One of the best advantages virtualization provides is that the disaster recovery process is the same process we use day in and day out to manage the workload within the data center, so we have much higher confidence in case of a disaster."

Marriott is building the RDC not only to provide a disaster recovery site, but also to accommodate future business growth. The company uses that location to do development work, Blanchard says. With virtualization, it can move development workload off the RDC systems and move production work onto those systems as needed.

Huntsville Hospital uses server and desktop virtualization for business continuity. The organization's IT environment consists of IBM blade centers attached to an EMC SAN. The hospital uses this environment for both virtual desktops and virtual servers.

VMware software has features called Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and High Availability (HA). DRS monitors host systems, and if the resources of a host are overextended, DRS uses another feature called VMotion to automatically move less utilized virtual "guests" to another host.

HA serves a similar function, only it looks for a host that is not running. "If a [host] has a hardware failure and is down, HA will bring down the virtual guests on that host, move them to another host or hosts, and restart them," Wilburn explains. "Since all this happens automatically, the amount of downtime involved is negligible."

Host systems are spread over two data centers. "Because of this, as long as we don't lose the SAN, we could lose a whole rack of servers and still stay operational," Wilburn says.

Another key feature of the VMware software is Site Recovery Manager (SRM), a tool to manage failover in a disaster recovery situation. With SRM, which Huntsville is evaluating, organizations can manage which virtual machines fail over to which site, as well as the order in which they are brought online.

"This keeps you from having to remember the order in which systems have to come online when you're in the midst of a disaster, as well as letting you test the failover without an actual failover to find the best scenario for your organization," Wilburn says.

Capacity Planning and Allocation

Capacity Planning and Allocation

Closely related to business continuity and disaster recovery, in terms of business flexibility, is server capacity planning and allocation. Virtualization will likely play a major role in helping organizations to better plan and allocate computing resources.

"While consolidation is often one of the first use cases for virtualization that [companies adopt], organizations quickly realize the potential for virtualization to deliver improved continuity and the ability to provision capacity on demand," says Iams of Ideas International.

Capacity planning is made easier with virtualization, he adds, because the virtual infrastructure allows pools of resources to be defined that can be tapped into on demand. This ensures that workloads have computing and storage resources when needed.

IDC says organizations can treat multiple host systems as a single pool of computing resources, and virtual machine loads can be balanced across the pool based on processor, memory, I/O utilization levels and policies set by users. As a result, IT shops can plan capacity at the resource pool level, knowing that any sharp increases in demand can be met by a quick reallocation of available server resources.

With its virtualized servers, Marriott International is able to move server workloads within a particular farm as capacity needs shift. "We're moving workload on a weekly or monthly basis within server farms in order to [meet user] utilization demands based on business processes, time of year or any other reason," Blanchard says.

"[Virtualization] is implemented mostly if we don't get capacity planning done in time, so we can quickly move workload if we're in a hurry. That's where virtualization really helps us, because we can do it extremely quickly and with a high degree of confidence."

Marriott views its virtualization project as a performance management effort--including making sure that established service levels for IT are being met--and capacity planning and allocation represent a huge part of that. Virtualization "improves our ability to be flexible to any number of [factors affecting service], including hardware failures, network failures or any other contingencies for operational events that could occur," Blanchard says.

Saint Vincent's also is using server virtualization for capacity planning. "It makes our life easy, because [virtualization] allows us to monitor all aspects of our server virtualization farm and is capable of alerting us to which host we need to deploy the next [virtual machine] on," Edupuganti says.

With the need for greater flexibility in a fast-changing business environment, expect virtualization to play an increasingly important role in capacity planning.