Virtual stall: What it is and why you have it

“Virtual stall” is a fairly new phenomenon and, to some, an unfamiliar phrase. To fully understand it, we must first consider the recent history of the modern data centre. Virtualization entered the data centre in a different way than most technologies. Its rapid adoption was driven by the ROI of server consolidation, the flexibility it brings to IT organizations, and in some cases, as a top-down initiative aimed at decreasing the ongoing footprint of the data centre. 

Virtualization came in fast and grew quickly, without going through the normal impact assessments that most technologies have to weather before deployment. One of the outcomes of this is that the impact of virtualization as a new data centre architecture has only surfaced during the growth phase, leading to problems and eventually applying the brakes to the whole initiative – virtual stall.

Virtual stall has four main causes:
Scalability issues:  A single IT team often finds it difficult to scale beyond the 25-30 per cent penetration range. This is due to the combination of lack of automation and reporting in virtualization management tools, creating time-consuming manual processes that are a particular problem when there is a lack of experienced and trained staff.

Management issues:
The data centreis not a place that can be managed manually; there are too many elements to be checked, and too many independencies. And, while there are levels of automation built into the virtualization platform, they can be difficult to define and implement. The lack of automated monitoring, alerting and control becomes more and more of a problem as the overall level of virtualization in the data centre increases.
Process issues:  Enterprise virtualization impacts a wide range of existing data centre processes, all of which need to be modified, replaced, or augmented. As long as the virtual environments are small and self-contained, these processes can be manipulated or ignored. But as the environment grows, it reaches a point when they have to be dealt with before real efficiencies can be reached. The more “process-mature” an organization is, the more quickly this point is reached.

Co-ordination issues:
Virtualization crosses multiple silos and ultimately requires a level of co-operation and integration that is impossible to achieve with the traditional silo management structure. In addition, the first workloads to be virtualized tend to be less critical ones.  However, as environments grow, higher-risk, higher-impact services are virtualized. These tend to have more stakeholders, more politics, more distributed infrastructures, and a greater cost of failure and downtime. Consequently, they require more coordination. 
Smaller and more flexible companies haven’t experienced VM stall, yet (although they will eventually), and the very large and process-mature organizations generally implemented virtualization initiatives in a more controlled and integrated manner, so they are seeing less VM stall. The firms in between these two extremes, however, need to be concerned about stall. 
These companies should look for tools and systems that can help increase visibility and simplify the management complexity of their environments. For some, this is all they will need to get them back on track. For others, the cultural issues will need to be addressed; silos will need to be broken down and new processes and procedures need to be implemented.
Improving virtualization’s management and reporting systems can help with both the technical and cultural hurdles impeding progress. Reporting is critical, and not just the reporting that administrators need to get their jobs done. There are other stakeholders in this architecture who also need specific information in order to do their jobs. For example, the security team may need to review changes in the environment over a certain period of time; business owners may need to understand how their services and associated levels of service are changing; IT managers may need to regularly review costs, capacity and utilization metrics; and asset managers may need to validate software licences. 
While much of the industry seems focused on VM sprawl right now, virtual stall has the bigger impact by far. The cost of virtual sprawl is underutilized resources, which, if left unattended, will result in incremental spending in order to accomplish growth objectives. Virtual stall, on the other hand, is the emergence of issues, which, if not dealt with, will prevent organizations from ever achieving their virtualization growth objectives.
Companies must think beyond the tactical deployment of a virtual infrastructure and shift to a more strategic approach. Treat virtualization as the data centre architecture that it actually is. As early as possible, involve data centre stakeholders and incorporate the needed reporting, management, and VM tracking systems that are necessary to scale a virtual environment safely and effectively. It’s the only way to ensure that your virtualization initiatives stay on track.
Jay Litkey is founder, president and CEO of Ottawa-based Embotics Corp.

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