What’s Next for Virtualization: Optimizing the Environment

As the server virtualization market continues to mature and more companies adopt server virtualization as a standard within their environments, the concerns and questions we hear day to day about virtual infrastructures are changing. We are no longer asked why and how we should use and deploy virtualization, but rather, is this new environment working for us as we expected it would? Do we have it configured correctly, and are we meeting our overall goals for the solutions we built?

This is a normal progression as a new technology evolves into a maturing market. Now, operations are more critical than architecture and engineering.

Before we talk about what’s next, let’s discuss a brief history. When virtualization was first being sold throughout the marketplace, proponents and vendors made many promises. PowerPoint presentations were full of the benefits of virtualizing data center environments. The big financial win was with server consolidation; reduce the number of physical servers in the data center while increasing the utilization of what you’ve purchased.

Following the buzz around consolidation were the benefits server virtualization provided: enhanced disaster recovery, quick deployment, self-healing environments, and true capacity on demand.

Virtualization Benefits Realized?

Moving forward three or four years to the present day provides a more mature picture. Today, most companies going virtual have deployed solutions based on VMware technologies, but we’re also seeing many other vendors entering the field, including Microsoft, Citrix and a host of smaller players.

Everyone has a solution for virtualizing an environment, and this trend is not slowing down. More and more technology companies are utilizing the benefits of virtualization to develop and deliver their products as “virtual appliances.” Virtualization has become the standard rather than the exception.

Due to the importance of the virtual infrastructure in most IT environments, IT managers are asking themselves questions about many aspects of their virtual environments. The strategy of virtualization is still sound, and the IT industry is moving quickly to provide ever-increasing functionality and stability within the overall ecosystem that has become “virtualization,” but are companies seeing the true benefits they sought when embarking on these large transformation projects?

Did virtualization deliver on its promises of providing significant return on investment, reducing total cost of ownership and, overall, improving IT’s ability to deliver services to its clients? Are we better off today then we were without virtualization? Has virtualization hurt us in any way with respect to performance and overall service availability? Or has it become just another silo of the IT department?

The Quest for Optimization

Now that IT management has been using virtual technologies for up to five years, it’s time to evaluate virtualization’s impact on these environments and look forward to what is needed to optimize them for the most ROI. Following are the questions IT departments are now tasked with answering, and what steps they can take to derive the desired results.

  • Cost — Is the virtual environment generating savings?

    One of the biggest issues we see when organizations tell us that they have not achieved their consolidation targets is that they do not understand the real cost differences between the physical and virtual platforms, and therefore have unrealistic assessments. Even when these differences are understood, they often fail to align their true cost of IT services with their budget. This creates an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the ROI. At the heart of any successful virtualization deployment is a full understanding of what makes up the overall solution costs. This is even more important in light of the current economic downturn. To achieve success, there must be a mature way to influence service selection based on the real cost to the organization. Companies that enter into a data center virtualization strategy without fully understanding the cost implications won’t be able to fully achieve the financial advantages of these technologies.

  • Visibility — Are you aware of — and have you optimized — the operational performance characteristics of your virtual environment?

    Virtualization enables the sharing of resources throughout the infrastructure from CPU– and memory-sharing to disk and network input/output. Because of this breadth of change, it has become increasingly difficult to see and capture the complete scope of a virtual machine and its underlying physical infrastructure.

    With all these moving parts now so tightly dependent on each other, it’s very important to understand what is going on inside the virtual infrastructure to improve their performance or prevent issues with other running virtual machines. Companies need the ability to view what is occurring today so they can manage the current infrastructure and plan for future workloads. Visibility into the environment allows for proper capacity planning and enables customers to deliver on-demand capacity. A company’s ability to provide this visibility will help identify trends within the infrastructure and better prepare the environment to meet its resource needs and hit its service level agreement and operating level agreement targets.

  • Processes — Has the virtual environment been assimilated into the culture of your organization?

    Many companies have never modified their existing processes for server provisioning, capacity planning and server deployment based on the advantages of the virtual infrastructure. It is here that we find most companies have either overlooked proper process integration or have not had the opportunity to fully integrate their processes based on the advantages provided by virtualization.

    While this integration step is critical to success, it is often overlooked and can prove difficult to do, because of the depth and breadth of the services involved. A proper integration will include interjecting virtualization into the processes of application development, project intake and server deployment, as well as capacity planning and facilities management. Virtualization also brings new concepts to configuration management that must be accounted for within daily operational procedures.

    Though difficult, the need to include and append virtualization in the current change control process is vital to the health of an infrastructure.

  • Software Lifecycle Management — Does your infrastructure meet your vendors’ recommended release levels?

    Since most of the products used in a virtual infrastructure are still on the upswing of the maturity curve, it is critical to properly manage new software releases and software updates. A virtual infrastructure has an ever improving and changing set of baselines, and for companies to take full advantage of their virtual infrastructure and keep it running efficiently, it’s critical to stay current with the modules and patches that are released by their hardware and software vendors. This includes reviewing and auditing the existing environment to ensure systems meet standards, and configuration settings are properly set.

    Keeping current with release levels and constantly reviewing the infrastructure will help companies position themselves to take advantage of any new features that come to market, and improve the overall stability and performance of the environment.

To address the questions and derive desirable results, IT must develop appropriate processes and implement appropriate tools to optimize and manage the virtual infrastructure. Currently, many new solutions are available to help remediate these issues, including enhanced performance monitoring tools, costing and chargeback tools, reporting and configuration management tools, SLA-based reporting tools, solutions for availability improvements, and new on-demand features. Finding the right combination of these solutions to support the virtual environment will be critical to achieving success.

Bottom Line

Server virtualization has produced many of the benefits that were promised back in 2003 and more. In most cases, companies are seeing great returns on their investments, but they are not as great as they expected. This is due to many factors — especially the great changes in process, as well as the expertise required to manage the new infrastructure.

With virtualization comes a new set of issues that the industry is now working to solve. Taking a virtual data center to the next level of maturity is now the new goal. All of the principles remain the same; enabling companies to realize the true benefits of their infrastructure requires process and application integration.

Virtualization brings great financial and functional benefits to each organization that implements it. With those benefits come certain challenges that take time and resources to overcome. These challenges can be overcome faster and more reliably by getting help from qualified partners.

Mark Shirman is founder, president and CEO of GlassHouse Technologies, an independent consulting firm that specializes in analyzing IT infrastructures and implementing strategic plans for optimization.

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