All the Virtualization That Fits

By Tony Kontzer

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.

All the Virtualization That Fits

For some companies, virtualization is a fit for one part of the operation but not another. Todd Slan, director of technology for Total Wine & More, based in Potomac, Md., says the retailer has no intention of virtualizing the single server running in each of its 65 stores. But server virtualization has been a significant component of Total Wine's corporate IT environment since 2005, when rapid growth was forcing Slan's team to add a server every time it was asked to deploy a new application or service.

With no commercial software product built specifically to help wine retailers manage their supply chains, inventories or budget forecasts, Slan knew that Total Wine's application development operation would need additional resources to keep up with the demands of supporting six or seven new stores each year. In response, the company added Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization software, bringing a rapid end to hardware proliferation that had seen Total Wine's server count reach 125.

By virtualizing all the servers in the retailer's two data centers--a primary one at the company's headquarters in Potomac, and a secondary facility in Tucson, Ariz.--Slan accommodated two business needs: "We were able to double the number of stores and leave our data center footprint exactly where it was," he says. "That wouldn't have been possible without virtualizing our servers."

What's more, by virtualizing its data centers, Total Wine doubled its server utilization rates to nearly 90 percent. That, in turn, has helped the company serve its consumers.

"You can't offer the lowest prices in the business unless you optimize your costs," says Slan. "If you use 50 percent of a resource, that's not optimizing."

Slan hopes to achieve similar gains in cost containment and efficiency with a storage virtualization effort that's currently about two-thirds completed. He is also considering virtualizing the company's training environment. Really, Slan admits there's no reason for him not to consider virtualizing anything that makes sense, because without virtualization, "we'd be spending a lot more money on IT than we are today."

Traditional Approach Bears Business Benefits

Server consolidation has long been the bread and butter of virtualization, and IT executives such as Peter Wallace, CIO of the city of Chesapeake, Va., remain content with that value proposition. After all, what's not to like about being able to run your applications on a fraction of the hardware?

Wallace was hired in 2007 to help the city contend with the server sprawl that resulted from an extended period of rapid population growth. He was faced with an antiquated data center with no modern cooling capabilities that was home to an expanding farm of 135 servers. Every application had at least one dedicated server, with the PeopleSoft HR system alone hogging up seven--and there were demands for more servers.

To make room for those expected servers, the city was planning to build a second story on the existing data center, at a cost of $10 million, and co-locate a disaster recovery environment in the same building. Wallace quickly scapped those plans. When he analyzed the city's server assets, he found that only 15 percent to 20 percent of server capacity was actually being used.

Wallace embarked on a virtualization effort, and in the nearly three years since, he's reduced the server count to 20, with plans to retire five more machines by this fall. "We have virtualized everything that we can, to the point where we have addressed the replacement of servers for the next two years," he says.

That's not to say there haven't been bumps along the road. For one thing, Wallace had to change a mindset that had the city referring to IT as a "division," a word that he says encouraged a lack of communication. He changed it to a "unit." He also had to work with resistant vendors, setting up a so-called physical-to-virtual test environment that made it possible to move applications between physical and virtual machines for troubleshooting and fixes of applications that hadn't been designed with virtualization in mind.

Ultimately, Wallace's virtualization strategy achieved several benefits:

  • It prevented an unnecessary data center expansion.
  • It saved the city $200,000 in budgeted server purchases.
  • It slashed IT's energy bills to $3,000 a month, a $2,000-per-month saving. (Wallace expects to knock another $1,000 a month off that once the last of the unneeded physical servers is retired.)

Sensing the important role virtualization will continue to play for the city, Wallace sent two of his network specialists for six months of training on VMware's technology, and had both sign agreements that they'd stay on long enough for him to recoup the training investment. "Now, we've got two virtualization experts on staff," he notes.

Representing the New Virtualization Model

In many ways, the civil engineering department at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and its CIO, Thomas Mather, represent the new virtualization model. Mather wasn't lured to virtualization by the promise of smaller server counts. His interest was driven by a desire to serve up applications to students wherever they roam on campus, rather than limiting them to the 150 computers available in the department's undergraduate and graduate labs.

"I don't use virtualization in the traditional sense of trying to save money," says Mather. "I do it for performance. Our goal is to give our 1,400 students the lab experience, but at a distance."

Mather has set up an elaborate desktop virtualization environment. He started several years ago by virtualizing three of the department's 18 Windows servers, ensuring that his staff isn't biting off more than it can chew. He has continued virtualizing servers in small batches. Today, all 18 machines are virtualized using Microsoft's Hyper-V technology, and a connection broker lets any student running a remote desktop client access those servers, whether they're in the lab or not.

As a result, the department's modest server farm can support up to 300 concurrent users accessing powerful applications such as the three-dimensional design program Autocad from locations all over campus--including classrooms, dorm rooms, libraries and cafeterias. A program called Diskeeper is used to optimize virtualization environments by constantly defragmenting files and consolidating disk space, enabling virtualized applications to run quickly and reliably, Mather says.

Eventually, Mather says he'd like to virtualize storage-intensive assets, such as the department's backup server. He is reluctant to do so until the department can afford a large enough storage area network. Meanwhile, he plans to virtualize his Microsoft Exchange environment within the year, whether or not a new SAN is in place. "Each virtualization project out there has different motivations and different objectives," says Mather. "But if performance is one of them, which it certainly always is, then this is a good, low-cost way to get closer to your goal."

Taking the First Step Toward Virtualization

Even huge, traditionally slow-to-change enterprises, such as those in the airline industry, are finding that consolidating their server assets enables them to move on to other developments, such as desktop virtualization, to realize further benefits. Continental's Anderson-Lehman says he hopes his team's efforts--which he says have been saving the airline $1.5 million annually in hardware, software, labor, implementation and operational costs--are enough to convince a merged United-Continental organization to take that success to the next level.

"The next logical step is to let someone else do the virtualization for me, and then I can move my systems into their virtual space," says Anderson-Lehman. "That's the logical evolution toward cloud computing."

The long-term potential of virtualization speaks to an issue that transcends server spread, budget concerns and any other barriers that might get in the way of a virtualization investment: The exponential growth of data is causing IT environments to burst at the seams. Says Storage and ServerIO Group's Schulz: "There is no such thing as a data recession."

This article was originally published on 10-20-2010