Scaling back on VMware is not an option for some

Tough economic times have given IT departments a lot of good reasons to stop spending in many areas. But according to a Toronto-based IT systems management firm, virtualization should definitely not be one of them.

From companies just getting started with server virtualization to those now venturing into desktop and storage virtualization, David Mitchell, manager of IS operations at Uptime Software Inc., said, investment in virtualization is “absolutely” still a wise move for organizations.

“There’s really no time like the present,” he said. “While upfront costs are diminishing, the cost of management continues to rise. We can buy more services and hardware a lot cheaper than we could five or 10 years ago, but we still need people to manage that.”

Mitchell estimated that his company is currently running more than 200 virtual machines across nine ESX servers. Besides the lower cost of ownership from the reduction of raw hardware, the immediate benefit for Uptime is the relatively small company can do more with less.

“To manage what we have now, in a non-virtualized environment, would have taken easily three or four full-time employees,” he said. By taking advantage of server virtualization, Mitchell added, provisioning new machines is extremely easy and the company can more rapidly respond to customer demands.

Uptime is also using VMware Inc.’s Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS), which migrates workloads between virtual servers for increased efficiency. Mitchell said the company also simplified their business continuity plans with VMware’s High Availability (HA) feature.

“You can look at both of those tools as being a cost savings measure,” he said.

According to a King Research survey conducted in October, more than 75 per cent of 519 polled IT professionals have already deployed some type of virtualization technology and about 10 per cent of others intend to do so in the next 12 months.

More than half of the companies surveyed were midsized companies with between 100 and 5,000 employees. The survey also found that 85 per cent of midsize companies have either deployed or have plans to launch some form of virtualization technology in 2009.

“The idea that virtualization is strictly an enterprise commodity simply doesn’t hold – medium enterprises are embracing virtualization technologies and adopting them at a rapid pace, realizing immediate benefits,” said King Research’s Diane Hagglund, in a statement.

But the survey found that these companies are also facing significant challenges, with 37 per cent of respondents citing a lack of virtualization expertise for limited adoption plans and 35 per cent indicating high upfront costs as a prohibitive factor in adopting the technology.

For Uptime, the single biggest challenge was storage – even edging out VM sprawl, which Mitchell admitted was also an issue.

“We have plenty of CPU and RAM for a few hundred VMs, but is an eight-terabyte array enough storage?” he asked. Implementing usage monitoring tools and stronger controls for VM provisioning will hopefully help address this concern, Mitchell added.

Grant Aitken, Canadian country manager with VMware, said that while his company is not immune from the economic downturn and some potential customers have gone into a spending shell, many more businesses are using the recession as an excuse to speed up virtual deployments.

“Because the ROI on our technology is so compelling, it tends to end up at the top of the stack for a lot of companies,” he said. Many companies that have seen their operating and infrastructure costs grow out-of-hand have also taken the plunge, he added.

“It’s like putting a new, more efficient furnace in your home,” Aitken said — you have to make the investment up front before you can start reaping the rewards.

And to help companies that can’t scrap up the initial capital investment, the company has implemented a new financing program with industry partners, including Oakville, Ont.-based Central Technology Services Corp. Aitken said that IT leaders looking to sell the cost benefits to their financial managers can also take advantage of the company’s TCO / ROI Calculator.

But despite Uptime’s success story, not everyone is fully convinced that server virtualization should be a sure-fire play during the ongoing recession. Even though consolidating a few dozen physical servers to a handful of host servers means less hardware, power and cooling, and management overhead, the math might be a littler trickier for midsized businesses.

Matt Prigge, a virtualization consultant and InfoWorld Test Center contributor, said that unless you’re a large business, there’s probably a good chance it’ll cost you more than you save – at least at the outset.

“Probably 50 per cent of the small- and medium-business virtualization implementations I see are not cheaper than simply replacing the physical servers already there,” he said.

If you buy 20 new servers at US$5,000 to grow your data centre or replace your current boxes the traditional way, that’s a $100,000 outlay, he said. Server virtualization’s cost equivalent: three powerful host servers with hardware memory chips from the likes of AMD Inc. or Intel Corp. at $16,000 each; a SAN at $40,000; and assorted costs in staff training, management software, virtualization licences, and consultants. That’ll all run about $100,000 as well.

Prigge added that the cost of going with physical servers or virtual ones is largely a wash, but given the potential long-term benefits of server virtualization – notably business continuity gains – the virtualization route is a wise choice.

— With files from IDG News Service

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