IBM responds to economic woes with virtualization

The best way to optimize IT in the face of a struggling economy is through server consolidation, according to IBM Corp executive. At this week’s ComputerWorld Canada Technology Insights conference in Toronto, Moonish Badaloo, a product manager with IBM’s global technical services team, said companies need to change the way they look at server infrastructure and IT optimization as a whole.

IBM’s plan revolves around centralizing server management and the consolidation of as many servers as possible. Badaloo, whose name means “high priest of change” in English, said that this can be done in two ways: firstly, by physically replacing older servers with more powerful systems, and secondly, by consolidating applicable workloads onto virtualized machines.

“You need to look at power management, how the business utilizes your network, and your storage needs,” Badaloo said.

The key to starting any server optimization project, he added, is for IT managers to collect all the data they can about what their systems do and when they do it.

“A lot of IT organizations can’t even identify the servers they have,” Badaloo said. This can – and maybe even should – be done before your company even decides to hire IBM or any other vendor to help with a project.

Once a company has decided to upgrade its physical server infrastructure and virtualize certain workloads, the question turns to how to best take advantage of virtualization and ensure it actually delivers on the hype.

One of the companies that helps IBM answer this question, and optimize the servers within its own data centres, is Richmond Hill, Ont.-based CiRBA Inc.

Gerry Smith, president and CEO at CiRBA, said that the traditional “one app-one server” approach to physical server deployments has forced companies to buy additional floor space, pay expensive power and cooling bills, and retain a large management staff. On the other hand, one of the biggest advantages to all these physical servers, he said, is that it segregates the processing power of each business unit throughout the enterprise.

“When you switch to a virtual infrastructure, what used to be your pros are now your cons,” Smith added. When different organizational units start sharing their virtualized infrastructure, he said, the finger pointing and name calling will ensue as soon as trouble arises.

CiRBA’s data centre analysis software brings together configuration information, business attributes and utilization data of servers, representing them as a three-dimensional cube and finding opportunities to optimize their use through virtualization or consolidation.

The system is about having a diverse set of workloads that optimizes your servers enough to ensure that a system never slows down or gets overloaded. For example, a workload that is doing almost nothing every hour, but peaking up at lunch time, has to be dealt differently than a workload with sustained activity throughout the day.

Smith said that pairing up two peaky workloads that have little to no chance of conflicting with one another, is a prime example of CiRBA’s philosophy. This strategic method of balancing virtual server workloads should enable your business to run at maximize efficiency and avoid any in-fighting among the various business groups sharing these resources.

In reference to Badaloo’s advice on data collection, Smith said that IT managers should make a “deadwood report” of all the dormant or unnecessary servers – such as systems running extraneous copies of anti-virus security software.

Other initial savings could be found from implementing e-mail quotas, reviewing your software licences agreements, and generally keeping a closer eye on under utilized computing technology throughout all areas of IT, Badaloo said.

For those board level executives that can be sold on anything green, Badaloo pointed out that a typical server in the year 2000 consumed roughly 100 watts of power, whereas today the average server uses about four times as many resources. For IBM, aligning your server optimization strategy with your green strategy could be the most effective way to get the approval and budget you need from the higher ups.

But while IBM’s server optimization strategies might look great on paper, a struggling economy could actually make it difficult for companies to invest hundreds of thousands or even millions into server optimization – especially when the ROI could be two or three years down the line.

Loren Hicks, an IT consultant who attended the conference, said that while the principles of IBM’s approach were correct, many small to medium-sized organizations would find it difficult to put into practice.

“The SMEs are the ones that don’t have the right data in the first place,” he said. “That’s the same market that also doesn’t have the budget to get these fairly large [consolidation] projects up and running.”

Hicks added that it will be interesting to see how many of these server optimizations projects actually succeed.

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