Flexibility trumps costs savings as key

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Flexibility overrides cost savings as a driver for adopting server virtualization technology, a recent industry survey indicates.

“Participants in our round table discussions said they were [unsure] about the hardware savings they would achieve in the short run, but really liked the flexibility virtual machines provide,” said Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based firm Forrester Research Inc.

The Forrester survey findings are echoed by a Canadian survey of 500 large and mid-sized firms conducted by research firm IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

Twenty per cent of the companies polled had some form of virtualization already in place, while another 20 per cent intended to deploy the technology within the next 12 months.

The development of management tools should be a priority for companies adopting virtualization technology, according to Alan Freedman, research manager for infrastructure hardware at IDC Canada.

“When you install any virtualization software, you are adding a level of complexity. I see a need for management tools that will make the environment more user friendly,” said Freedman. IT staff, he said, need to bone up on how to manage virtual machines (VM) in their organization.

Virtualization software allows a single host computer to create and run one or more virtual environments. Gillette said users like the fact that virtualization isolates operating systems (OS) from hardware-specific drivers. “[This] enables users to easily move virtual servers from one box to the next without adjustments to the OS configuration.”

He said in some instances users were able to carry out migration operations in three hours or less, compared to the 20 to 30 hours needed to physically move servers.

Participants also said virtualization helps them to reduce space, power and cooling needs, as they strive to avoid hitting data centre limits or expansion thresholds.

The May 2006 poll of 56 Canadian and U.S.-based companies with 500 or more employees showed the march away from the server sprawl model continues to gain momentum.

The survey showed 60 per cent of North American companies have adopted virtualization. “As virtualization gets baked into most server hardware in the next two years and customer pressure mounts, software vendors will have no choice but to embrace the technology,” the survey said.

Despite the growing number of users, the study found very few firms have aggressive implementations of server virtualization. Eighty-four per cent of the companies said they ran between two to six virtual machines (VMs) per server box. The remainder ran 15 or more VMs per box.

Assistance in disaster recovery was seen as yet another driver, as 23 per cent of the respondents indicated they were using virtualization to help in business continuity.

Although awareness of Microsoft Inc.’s Virtual Server 2005 product has risen dramatically from the when it first hit the market, Forrester said most respondents list VMware Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. as their virtualization vendor of choice. Asked which single vendor they would consider, 68 per cent chose VMware while only nine per cent sided with Microsoft.

VMware says it hopes go beyond offering simple server consolidation and the management of a few virtual machines coaxed out of a physical server.

The company says its recently launched Infrastructure 3 will allow data centres to manage servers farms as a shared utility that can be allocated to different business units or projects.

The software also frees the hands of information technology (IT) managers by migrating applications automatically to available hardware resources on demand without disrupting ongoing transactions.

“This is the nirvana that IT managers have been asking for,” said Brian Byun, vice-president for products and alliance of VMware.

Instead of an array of server boxes specifically configured for a given OS and application, Infrastructure 3 maps a set of applications over a large pool of servers. The applications can be provisioned instantly and recovered at the same or remote locations regardless of operating systems or hardware.

While Infrastructure 3 is available now, rivals are still fine tuning their offering.

Microsoft for instance, will be replacing its Virtual Server 2005 with a new Hypervisor bundled into its Longhorn Server sometime in 2007.

Hilary Wittman, the Windows server product manager for Microsoft Canada, says that system management is where their product excels.

“Industry focus is moving from virtualization enabling to server management,” said Wittman. “We’ve retained a lot of the desirable components of Virtual Server but we made sure we didn’t add in more complexity. Users will get strong system management service.”

Forrester said those using or seriously considering using Virtual Server are doing so because it was originally priced lower. Both Microsoft and VMware have since made their entry level products free.

The Forrester study sees Microsoft “will become a factor” as a top choice for deployment only in 2007 and 2008.

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