Virtualization tips and tricks

The benefits that can be gained from virtualization — installing several virtual instances of machines on a single physical machine — are unquestionable. Enterprises implementing server consolidation through virtualization technology are bound to realize cost savings, improved efficiency and better resource utilization.

Where uncertainties may lie, however, is in the process of figuring out how to go about transforming the organization’s hardware-centric IT system into an effective virtual infrastructure. Here are some helpful tips to consider as your organization ventures into the virtual realm.

Test the waters. Conduct initial testing of virtualization software to get a sense of what the technology can do for your environment, said John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. This can be done fairly inexpensively through free versions of both Microsoft’s and VMWare’s virtual servers, which can be downloaded from these vendors’ respective Web sites.

Plan a staged approach. Ease into virtualization as it suits your firm’s needs, wrote Forrester Research analysts Frank Gillett and Galen Schreck in a research document entitled, Server Virtualization Goes Mainstream. Begin planning for a scaleable environment where hardware resources can be increased or decreased based on demand, and where software can run from anywhere, the Forrester analysts said.

Examine yourself. Look at your current infrastructure and take stock of physical servers than can be candidates for virtualization.

For instance, a server that’s already running at 90 per cent utilization would probably be best to be left as it is, while servers that are generally underutilized would be good candidates for virtualization.

Generally, the benefit of virtualization increases with the number of physical servers you virtualize, said Sloan. The investment starts to make business sense when the environment runs at a ratio of at least three virtual machines per physical server, he added.

Many organizations are implementing virtualization in conjunction with hardware refresh. As old servers reach the end of their lifecycles, companies are looking at buying fewer, but more powerful, servers as a platform for virtualization, said Sloan. Your virtualization adoption can be an evolutionary approach rather than a big bang-like transformation.

Keep it real. Some vendors offering virtualization solutions tend to present case studies or client success stories that may lead an organization to expect much more from the technology that what is realistic. Based on customer interviews, Info-Tech found vendors generally suggest that purchasers will achieve a consolidation ratio of as much as 12 virtual machines per processor. Actual implementations, however, reveal that the more realistic expectation should be pegged at about six virtual machines per processor, Sloan said.

The figure could be higher, however, in the case of a server with multiple processors, in which case you can expect to achieve more than six virtual machines per server. An ideal server platform for virtualization is a four-way or four-processor server, the Info-Tech analyst suggested. Be cautious about setting your expectations too high as it might negatively affect your business case.

Consider automation. Managing a host of servers — both virtual and physical — will become cumbersome as companies go deeper into a virtualized infrastructure. The number of physical boxes in the IT environment may have decreased, but the virtual machines running on those physical servers will continue to rise as new applications get installed and business requirements grow. IT management is not reduced by virtualization, because you are simply replacing your physical server sprawl with virtual server sprawl. “And if you have a lot of storage and processing capacity to create these (virtual) machines, then you have a bigger management hell than when you had physical machines,” Sloan said.

Look at technologies that automate the configuration and management of both virtual and physical servers to relieve IT department of the labour-intensive task of maintaining all servers, physical and virtual.

Forrester has identified products like BladeLogic Operations Manager, BMC Marimba Server Management, HP OpenView Server Configuration Management, IBM Tivoli Intelligent Orchestrator and Opsware Automation Suite that can help automate server maintenance, including patch management.

Choose wisely. Virtualization is not the answer to all your IT problems. While it might make sense for most of your applications to run on virtual machines, high input/output (IO) applications are typically better off running on a physical machine, according to Info-Tech’s Sloan. For instance, an application running off a SQL database may be problematic in virtualization situations, as it requires a higher amount of processing power than what a typical virtual machine can provide.

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