Thursday, April 03, 2008

Debating Virtualization

Wendy Tanaka, 04.03.08, 6:00 PM ET


Virtualization is the hottest IT topic today--and will likely be in the future--because it's transforming corporate computing, and ultimately, the way business gets done. In essence, virtualization lets companies use more of the computing resources they already have, thus reducing capital and energy costs.

But virtualization's promise won't come to fruition overnight, and with any new area of technology, unforeseen problems will arise. talked to four tech industry experts--Forrester Research (nasdaq: FORR - news - people ) Vice President Frank Gillett, Burton Group (other-otc: BURUY - news - people ) Senior Analyst Chris Wolf, IDC Vice President John Humphreys and Gartner Vice President Thomas Bittman--to find out what's next for the burgeoning field of virtualization. Most large enterprises have embraced server virtualization. What's the next big area of computing ripe for virtualization, and why?

Thomas Bittman: Actually, most enterprises have just started server virtualization. We believe that about 3% to 4% of the workloads running on x86 architecture servers have been migrated to virtual machines so far--higher for large enterprises. Large enterprises will be expanding their server virtualization usage for years.

Frank Gillett: The next big thing in virtualization is upgrading the rest of the IT infrastructure technology to work well with server virtualization. This means updates to systems management, networked storage, network management and network-based resources such as load balancers, accelerators and firewalls.

John Humphreys: All of these have technical and economic hurdles that must be overcome, but given the industry's focus on virtualization, these gaps have already started to close.

Chris Wolf: I see management orchestration as being the next major element of the enterprise ready to leverage virtualization. As workload increases, systems will automatically be brought online, and as workload decreases, policies will dictate when physical server systems will be shut down.

VMware is embedding its "hypervisor" software into servers from Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM. Will all servers be automatically virtualized in the future?

Wolf: Yes. Eventually the role of the hypervisor will fully move to server hardware. All hypervisor vendors that wish to remain competitive will be shipping embedded versions of their hypervisors in the next 12 to 24 months. Citrix IHV partners will begin to ship an embedded XenServer hypervisor on their server platforms this year, and I expect Microsoft to follow closely behind.

Bittman: The real challenge will be to choose the right management stack that manages virtualized elements and also manages non-virtualized elements--or at least allows users to manage both easily.

What are some of the challenges and downsides of virtualization?

Gillett: Same as any new technology that requires managing change and complexity.

Virtualization adds complexity and creates new ways to fail. But the ultimate goal is ease of use, in the same way that today's automobiles are much more complex to use than autos from 50 years ago, but offer a much better experience and value.

Bittman: Many users see virtualization as a solution to server sprawl. The reality is that virtual machine sprawl is a more difficult problem to solve. Virtualization puts management front and center. You must have a good management strategy for your virtual machines. You also must understand the ramifications to your operational processes (configuration management, problem management, capacity planning, etc.). We like to say that virtualization changes virtually everything.

Wolf: Several challenges exist with virtualization today, including security. Many organizations have begun to see that allowing users to run virtual machines locally on their desktop may present a substantial security risk. The cause of the risk is that users running virtualization software could potentially connect any unmanaged server operating system as a virtual machine to the company network. Since virtual machines exist as software, it's much easier to get a virtual machine located on a USB thumb drive past security than it would be to carry a server out of a building.

Humphreys: There are host of myths about virtualization floating around. The first is that virtualization will solve all your problems. The technology essentially helps you reduce your server footprint but it doesn't help with managing patches and updates of all the software images. Customers still need image- and patch-management tools.

I hear frequently that customers did not anticipate the process changes they needed as they went from physical to virtual. In the physical world, deploying a new server can take up to six weeks, while in the virtual world, it takes minutes. As a result, more virtual machines tend to get deployed, which is why the expression "virtual machine sprawl" is everywhere these days. The big issue is that IT is deploying more machines, but it isn't archiving and decommissioning the old ones.

What is the connection between virtualization and cloud computing?

Wolf: Virtualization is front and center in Amazon's Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2), with Amazon leveraging Xen-based virtualization in its compute-cloud infrastructure. Virtualization allows service providers to present a consistent image to clients regardless of where the system is run. So providers no longer have to dedicate very specific hardware for client resources. Instead, they can virtualize client systems and allow them to reside on a particular server in the cloud. Still, organizations faced with regulatory compliance restrictions have been wary of using virtual cloud-based computing, as they need guarantees of the physical security of their data.

Bittman: The nice thing about virtual machines is they don't need to assume much of anything about the host hardware--except that the hardware supports a certain virtual machine format. Of course, server virtualization is not just about virtual machines--virtualization can occur at any point in the architecture, by decoupling two things that were previously tightly integrated and using some kind of standard interface. So virtualization is a great enabler to cloud computing--increasing the spectrum of things that could be decoupled and offered through the cloud.

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