Sharpening your virtualization vision (Part I)

Virtualization is one of the most talked about concepts in it these days. A report from London, Ontario-based Info-Tech Research Group sheds light on the adoption of this technology and its near- and long-term potential for the enterprise. In part one of a two-part article, we tap Info-Tech’s research to better understand virtualization and it utility infrastructures. Next month we take a closer look at the impact of virtualization on small to mid-sized firms, and how the landscape for this technology will evolve over time.

As virtual machines become more ubiquitous, IT executives will need to focus on managing the utility infrastructure to get the most value from this technology. Innovative IT decision-makers can use this technology to create more agile and cost-effective data centre infrastructures.

Info-Tech Research Group sees virtualization as a critical component of flexible and responsive utility IT infrastructures. The company’s research analyzes current trends in virtual-machine adoption by small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), and examines the continued growth in adoption throughout 2007. This two-part article taps into Info-Tech’s research and includes a look at:

• How “virtualization” has come to mean x86/x64 processor virtualization.

• The current adoption of virtualization and how it is being used by SMEs.

• Longer-term potential for virtualization for IT/business alignment.

• Predictions on the near-term future of the x86/x64 virtualization market.


Processor virtualization has rapidly gained a foothold among SMEs as these enterprises seek to cost-effectively manage server infrastructure consolidation and growth. The likelihood of virtualization in the enterprise increases with infrastructure size and complexity. However, the infrastructure impact of x86/x64 processor virtualization is greater for small to mid-sized enterprises than it is for large enterprises.

The most immediate practical benefit of virtualization can be found in the savings achieved on server hardware purchases through greater and more efficient utilization of processor capability. The application testing and development realm is an especially strong candidate for virtualization, although an increasing number of enterprises are using virtualization in a production environment. Among surveyed enterprises, ranging from 250 to 5,000 employees, 22 per cent say they are using virtualization in production environments and a further 13 per cent say they plan to use it in a production environment within a year.

Virtualization adoption is much higher among IT departments that focus on innovation for strategic advantage than for those that focus solely on cost control. Info-Tech sees virtualization as a critical component of building flexible and responsive utility IT infrastructures. In a utility type of IT infrastructure, virtualization is used to create abstract processing and storage from the underlying hardware, and is allocated to specific applications as required. This flexible and dynamic structure improves IT agility by allowing for the quick provisioning of resources to business initiatives when and where needed.

Moving forward, enterprises seeking to gain continued benefit from virtualization will need to focus on the management layer. Virtual machines are becoming a commodity item, an out-of-box feature of server hardware. Maximum value will be gained not from deploying virtual machines but from efficiently managing the virtual infrastructure.


Processor virtualization is the sharing of one physical processor (or cluster of physical processors) among more than one running operating system and software stack. Each operating system runs as if it is on its own dedicated processor(s) – one real machine running multiple “virtual machines.” It is not a new concept. In managing mainframe computers, for example, it has long been possible to divide processing, memory, and storage among multiple logical partitions, or LPARs. IBM first introduced logical partitioning in 1976.

Currently, however, the term “virtualization” is most often associated with the running of virtual machines on x86/x64 processors. Even more specifically, it typically refers to using VMware to run virtual machines on x86/x64 servers. This is a relatively new development as the x86 has normally supported a single operating system (such as Windows or Linux). Traditional distributed processing infrastructures normally add a new x86 box for each new user (PC) or workgroup/enterprise application (server).


Processor virtualization for x86 hardware is a hot trend. Virtualization has gained a significant foothold in the SME space (in this instance SMEs are equated with staff sizes of between 250 and 5,000 employees). Two thirds of enterprises surveyed by Info-Tech in this employee-numbers range say they are using virtualization in some capacity, and a third of respondents say they are using it in a production environment or will be doing so within a year.

The growing use of virtualization is in line with Info-Tech’s predictions that virtualization of Windows/Linux servers would be a dominant trend in 2006. Virtualization will be pervasive on x86/x64 servers and also desktops by the end of the decade. Reasons for this prediction include:

? Continued move to server consolidation. Virtualization of Windows/Linux servers and workstations is a critical component of next-generation centralized service-oriented IT infrastructure. With virtualization, an enterprise can boost hardware utilization to between 60 per cent and 80 per cent by consolidating multiple virtual instances on a few powerful multi-processor servers.

? Maturing of product offerings and competition. VMware has been the most successful pioneer of virtualization. The company, which was acquired by EMC Corporation in December 2003, continues to lead the market with up to 20,000 enterprise customers. However, VMware is facing stiff competition this year from Microsoft Virtual Server and Virtual PC, as well as from the open-source alternative Xen from XenSource.

? Processor enhancements for virtual machines. Virtual x86 machines typically run entirely in software emulation with hardware calls interpreted by the virtualization software. Intel and AMD have both debuted processor technologies that allow their processors to do some of the work of the virtual machines, boosting performance of the virtual machine instances.

Server consolidation and a move toward centralized management of servers and storage as utilities continue to be key drivers of virtualization adoption. Info-Tech has found that most SMEs are pursuing a centralized server strategy, with the emphasis on centralized management growing with industry size.

Virtualization adoption is highest amongst enterprises in the Manufacturing, Business Services and Financial Services sectors, all of which are heavy spenders on servers, and likely candidates for infrastructure consolidation.


The smallest enterprises – those with 100 or fewer employees – are generally not using virtualization. There is a clear tipping point between 100 and 250 employees toward virtual-machine testing and deployment. In enterprises of 100 or fewer employees, fully 75 per cent of survey respondents said they are not using virtualization. That proportion drops to 50 per cent among respondents in organizations of 101 to 250 employees.

In addition to enterprise size in terms of employees, Info-Tech sees a tipping point in virtualization adoption with increased number of servers. As with enterprises having fewer than 100 employees, three quarters of those with simple desktop application-oriented infrastructure are not using virtualization.

Typically, virtualization starts to make sense when the number of servers passes 15, with 30 servers or more leading to the greatest and most demonstrable cost savings and benefits. It is interesting to note, and indicative of the strength of this trend, that even among the small enterprises and enterprises with simple back-office infrastructures, there are still a solid minority (in the range of 25%) that are using virtualization even if mainly in a testing mode. 073640

Next month we take a closer look at the impact of virtualization on small to mid-sized firms, and how the landscape for this technology will evolve.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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