Are you being (virtually) served?

Data center managers have adopted server virtualization wholeheartedly in the past year, across a variety of businesses, and for nearly every kind of application.

Reduced oversight and hardware costs were the main drivers behind the adoption, said IT managers and analysts who participated at Infrastructure Management World held recently in Scottsdale, Ariz.

There is no downside to server virtualization, said the six IT managers at the conference.

In addition, more than half of the 400 conference attendees said (in a computer-based survey) that they are either already deploying server virtualization technology in their companies, or plan to do so.

Research firm IDC has seen enormous growth in virtualized servers, noting nearly 500,000 virtualized servers should ship in 2006. That’s a remarkable growth considering that the virtualized servers were not even on the radar screen three years ago.

By 2009, the number shipped should be 1.2 billion, according to the research firm. IDC analyst Michelle Bailey said a survey of IT managers in the U.S. by IDC last year showed widespread adoption of the technology. Even more growth has been predicted for a variety of applications in a more recent survey not yet released. “I’m shocked by the level of adoption of virtualization,” Bailey said.

With the increasing clamour for server virtualization, some managers are willing to consider open-source options to cut costs. Others, however, are hesitant to go that route.

Six users interviewed by Computerworld said they are using commercial virtualization software from VMware Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., though some are testing open-source software obtained through XenSource Inc., also in Palo Alto.

“We see virtualization as a trend that’s not going away,” said Lee Congdon, vice-president of corporate technology at Capital One Financial Corp. in McLean, Va. Capitol One is midway into a three-year plan to add virtualization software to Windows-based servers, a move that will reduce the number of servers at the company from 1,600 to 1,100, he said. There have already been “substantial” cost savings arising from the transition, but Congdon would not provide details.

IT managers say they don’t need as many server administrators or server boxes to run virtual servers, allowing their companies to save on personnel and equipment costs.

In the case of Capitol One, adoption of server virtualization has aided and abetted business growth.

The firm harnessed the technology to grow into a full-service bank faster, moving beyond its image as a credit card company. Congdon said financial applications used by newer business units can be added to a collective of servers, instead of relying on the old, more expensive philosophy that every new application deserves its own server.

With the older system, provisioning a new server would take up to eight weeks; it now takes just two, he said. That reduction supports faster application development cycles, something the bank needs as it grows. Any application, whether critical or not, can be considered viable for running on a virtual server, Congdon said.

However, some analysts have noted that server virtualization is most often used for more routine tasks not vital to an organization.

Capitol One is also evaluating the use of open-source virtualization, but Congdon would not name any particular software. How it performs in tests will determine whether it is used, he said.

Detroit Medical Center, with nine hospitals in Detroit, has been using server virtualization software for three years and expects to expand beyond the 20 servers now sharing up to four virtual servers apiece, said John Karras, director of technical services at the center.

So far, the virtualization process has yielded a 40 per cent increase in server capacity without requiring more server administrators, he said.

Karras has reservations about using open-source software in a medical environment. “The problem is there’s nobody to call” if a problem arises, he said. “And if there is somebody to call, it means it’s not really open-source and you’ll be paying for support.”

Also skeptical is Mike Simson, director of operations at American Modern Insurance Group Inc. in Cincinnati, which has 170 virtual servers running on 140 server boxes. “My philosophy about open-source is the same as what they used to say — that nobody ever got fired by buying IBM.” Simson said virtualization lowers server maintenance costs, but couldn’t provide a specific amount.

Adoption of server virtualization is not limited to specific sectors, but is extending to businesses of every type and size.

For instance, Riester, an advertising firm in Phoenix, Ariz. with 100 employees, has been using a single server box with three virtual servers running on VMware, according to Dan Peterson, director of IT. He said that the cost of VMware pushed him to consider XenSource, which he is testing currently. (VMware charges for management software, which the company is trying to avoid, and Peterson said he doesn’t have any reservations about trying open-source in his shop).

Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. is also using VMware to virtualize its x86-based systems. Bryant University is standardizing on IBM BladeCenter servers running IBM Power and Intel Xeon processors and taking advantage of virtualization technologies. IBM Power has virtualization capabilities built in.

For Bryant University the focus over the past couple of years has been on consolidation and this was undertaken in two phases. In the first phase, servers scattered across the campus were centralized in two physical locations, and in the second, virtualization technologies were used to consolidate even further.

“Real estate is very tough to come by on our campus,” says Rich Siedzik, director of computer and telecommunications services at the 3,600-student school. “So we’re trying to consolidate and collapse things now into one physical location. We’re trying to put them into a much smaller footprint.”

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