Virtualization is not just about server consolidation

Virtualization will be the biggest driver for IT infrastructure and operations spending over the next several years, according to a report from Gartner Inc.

The Stamford, Conn.-based research firm called virtualization the “highest-impact trend” for IT through 2012, predicting it will determine how IT administrators manage, buy, deploy and plan their future strategies. And it won’t just be the major enterprises that jump on the virtualization bandwagon either.

“To be honest, most of the growth for virtualization thus far has been in the (large) enterprises,” Phillip Lawson, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said. “VMware has been fairly monolithic in its success, but we think as Microsoft enters we’re going to see the mid-range and smaller enterprises really open up and adopt virtualization.”

The driving factor behind the growth, according to Gartner, will be server virtualization, which the research firm said contributed to a four per cent drop in the x86 server market in 2006. The report states that about 90 per cent of the server market is composed of x86 architecture servers. Based on the traditional model of one application per server, Gartner said, roughly 80 to 90 per cent of server computing capacity is unutilized.

Gartner analysts also predict that more than four million virtual machines will be installed on x86 servers by next year – which is almost as many virtual PCs in operation today. David Lynch, vice-president of marketing at Ottawa-based Embotics Corp. agreed with the report’s findings, saying virtualized server adoption will only continue to increase as companies see its benefits beyond mere server consolidation.

“I think server virtualization is one of the biggest impact points,” Lynch, whose company released a virtual machine life-cycle management tool called the V-Commander last September, said. “It started with consolidation, which to me is a low hanging fruit and a very quick return on investment. But once customers start using it for consolidation, they quickly realize how powerful this technology is and something that started as a tool can soon become critical architecture.”

And with server virtualization allowing organizations to quickly provision virtual machines within a matter of minutes, Gartner said another strong factor in the virtualization boom will be the significant growth of virtual PC deployment. The research group expects the number of virtualized machines to grow from less than five million in 2007 to about 660 million by 2011.

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While Lynch agreed that the number of virtual PCs would increase over the next few years, he felt Gartner’s forecast might be a bit too optimistic. “Most organizations that we’re talking to are really focused on the server side,” he said. “On the desktop side, it really ties in with replacement cycles. If anyone is thinking about the desktop side, they’re thinking about some laptops they may have that need to be upgrade. I don’t think a lot of companies are considering this type of thing ahead of time.”

Some in the virtualization space believe the success of Microsoft’s Hyper-V will ultimately determine virtual machine deployment numbers over the next few years.

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“Microsoft’s Hyper-V could drive that number in any direction really,” Andrew Hillier, co-founder and CTO at Richmond Hill, Ont.-based server virtualization firm CiRBA Inc., said. “We’ve also seen some very interesting things from vendors like Citrix, where it’s quickly building the ability to virtualize both the server and the client side.”

With the virtualization industry already starting to get a little crowded, Gartner said enterprises can expect this competition to play out both in the market and in the users’ IT infrastructure. As a result, the research firm advises virtualization adopters to avoid following one specific vendor’s vision and develop their own heterogeneous infrastructure.

“You need to understand your own application portfolio, what to virtualize and what not to virtualize,” Lawson said. “Have a pragmatic approach to virtualizing your infrastructure and don’t assume one size fits all.” Lawson said the factors that will help drive this along are broader scaling of virtualized environments in the hardware and better common management processes for the applications.

“If you look at the system management capabilities of virtualization vendors, it’s not the big players that are succeeding at the moment, it’s all the small tools guys,” he said.

And as one of the “smaller guys,” Lynch said Embotics has worked to partner with many of the bigger virtualization movers and shakers like VMware, Microsoft and Citrix because many customers will utilize all three of their products. Tools like V-Commander, he said, will help bridge the gap in many companies’ virtualized environments.

“Hypervisor technology is getting rapidly commoditized and what really makes it work are the management systems,” Lynch said. “No one wants to manage the virtual and physical data centres in two different ways, so we’re starting to see folks like ourselves integrate the physical space into the server space and I think that’s what will also help accelerate growth.”

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