The Nuts and Bolts of Virtualization

Although virtualization seems to be the newest catch phrase, the concept has actually been around since the ’60s when IBM created a research system that was designed to explore new computing concepts focused on resource time sharing and hard drive partitioning.

Today, businesses are increasingly turning to virtualization as a means to lower overhead and labor costs, efficiently organize resources and increase deployment speed when making system-wide software and application changes.

While there are different types of virtualization — storage, server and network are the most common — conceptually they are fairly similar. A single computer behaves and functions as if it were two or more separate computers each tasked with separate responsibilities.

Using specially designed software — and sometimes hardware — a single computer can be set up to run multiple operating systems, each with their own applications.

Each virtual machine can then be allocated to oversee different parts of a company’s business needs. One may house a content management system that delivers data to a Web site, another may house file storage, and a third may oversee the company’s network needs. In short, virtualization brings most, if not all, of a company’s computing technology under one easily managed umbrella.

Who Uses Virtualization?

At first blush, it may seem that virtualization is best saved for companies with a huge employee base and loads of resources to manage. That isn’t necessarily the case, Nick van der Zweep, director of virtualization for Hewlett-Packard, told LinuxInsider.

“Customers in any industry can benefit from virtualization, and HP has the technology and expertise to help companies of all sizes and all types achieve real business outcomes from virtualization today,” van der Zweep said. “HP helps customers optimize resources from the datacenter to the desktop with a number of virtualization offerings.

“Virtualization also helps make IT environments more flexible by simplifying the management and automation of virtual infrastructures. Customers can speed up deployment of infrastructure and applications, keep them up and running more efficiently and adjust infrastructure more quickly when business demands change. Virtualization benefits all companies because it transforms IT to be faster, cheaper, and better,” he added.

“We needed an easier method” Gentry Ganote, CIO of Golf and Tennis Pro Shop, which owns PGA Tour Superstores, told LinuxInsider. He saw those benefits for himself when his company used Virtual Iron Software to deploy virtualization solutions across all eight of the chain’s retail stores. “We needed to get better utilization from our servers, and we needed an easier method of deploying new servers,” Ganote added.

“Virtual Iron allowed us to put several application servers on one physical server. We now have greater utilization of our CPU processing, on a per server basis. Deployment of new servers is much easier now. We simply populated our newer blade servers with more RAM, and we can deploy a new server in about a half hour, as opposed to up to a week for deployment before,” he noted.

In fact, the entire virtualization process took only a couple of weeks to deploy in its entirety and has kept pace with the company’s growth ever since, Ganote stated.

“PGA Tour Superstores was dealing with a fast-growing IT infrastructure that was trying to keep pace with the retail chain’s rapid expansion in the U.S.,” Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer of Virtual Iron Software, told LinuxInsider.

“CIO Greg Ganote was in the midst of a large datacenter restructuring effort and wanted a virtualization solution that could scale in terms of both performance and cost. He needed enterprise-class virtualization and management to support large workloads. … Today, PGA is benefiting from improved datacenter efficiency and performance,” he added.

Why Virtualization?

Though the cost of implementing virtualization solutions can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands depending on the needs of the company, return on that investment is typically swift. “The benefits are absolutely immediate — that is one of the reasons there is so much hype about it,” Grandinetti said. “Users see benefits literally within 30 minutes of deploying the technology and can realize a return on their investment within a week with a solution like Virtual Iron.”

While PGA TOUR Superstores declined to comment on the specific financial impact of their virtualization solution, Ganote acknowledged that its “growth is at a fast pace.”

Improved efficiency and performance, along with an increase in cost savings, are the main reasons businesses turn to virtualization.

Royal London, one of the UK’s largest insurance firms, turned to HP’s virtualization solutions to consolidate its IT infrastructure and realized an immediate cost savings of US$200,000. North Carolina’s largest newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, recently chose Virtual Iron to virtualize its production circulation and editorial workflow systems and, according to Grandinetti, “[its] results include server consolidation, improved news processing and editorial cycle times, and simplified management.”

Though the individual reasons for choosing virtualization may vary from business to business, the results are largely the same across the board. “CIOs and IT managers are continually asked to reduce IT costs and increase performance levels while building an IT infrastructure that can effectively respond to changing business needs,” said van der Zweep. “Virtualization is a key element in the transformation to an automated 24/7 lights-out computing environment — or, a next-generation datacenter.”

Grandinetti agreed. “As computing needs have multiplied and computing power has become more affordable, enterprise datacenters are unable to handle the demands for space, power and cooling. Companies find themselves with a very inefficient, underutilized infrastructure that is poorly positioned to meet the demands of the business,” he stated.

“Virtualization provides immediate relief to these pressures by making better use of the existing datacenter infrastructure, reducing the need for more hardware, saving money on power and cooling requirements. Further helping the cause is the fact that the benefits are easy to see and well documented. It’s also relevant to any business — regardless of industry or size,” Grandinetti added.

Here Today or Gone Tomorrow?

Despite its seemingly unstoppable run at becoming the newest must-have technology, virtualization is not without its drawbacks. For businesses operating on a shoestring, startup costs — which start at several hundred dollars and add up quickly — can be prohibitive.

Although virtualization technology is evolving at a rapid pace, it is still a fairly new concept that has yet to hit its stride. Companies relying strictly on virtualization solutions should have strong redundancy plans in place to forestall any serious problems when dealing with relatively new technology such as this.

Even the best virtualization solution can be stymied by a lack of quality accessible technical support. Although companies like Virtual Iron and HP offer experienced and professional support as part of their services, in-house IT managers well-versed in virtualization technology are still a company’s best defense against unforeseen circumstances that always seem to strike at the worst possible moment.

In the coming years, nearly all businesses will likely face decisions on various solution for their computing needs. Whether virtualization solutions are the answer will vary according to the company, but the technology itself is here to stay.

“Virtualization will only continue to grow in enterprises,” predicted Grandinetti. “Essentially, virtual servers will become the new physical servers. We are already seeing it as analysts like IDC and Gartner cut their server shipment forecasts as companies replace physical servers with virtual servers. Going forward, companies will need the tools and expertise to manage this virtual infrastructure,” he noted.

“Any IT organization that is not taking advantage of virtualization in the next twelve months will be behind the curve,” Grandinetti concluded.

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