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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should You Virtualize Your Data Center?

Data Center Fundamentals
Data Center Fundamental

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The buzz about virtualization is second only (and somewhat related) to the buzz about the cloud, as far as business-related catchphrases go these days. But by now we realize that some of the buildup surrounding the cloud is largely hype, and we know to look carefully before we leap. So, is the same true of virtualization? How much of the fervor over virtualizing your data center is simply overzealous hype?

The Benefits Of Virtualization
There’s no doubt that there are ways in which virtualization might not benefit your data center. “Virtualization is a  critical enabler of consolidation— server consolidation, but also network and storage consolidation,” says Info Tech lead analyst John Sloan. “We see consolidation as a fundamental part of moving to what has variously been called a utility or agile infrastructure.”

The benefit here, according to Sloan, is that virtualization inserts an abstraction layer in the process, and that layer allows you to break the one-to-one relationship that had heretofore always defined the process of configuring and deploying an asset. In other words, says Sloan, “it allows you to carve out a piece of capacity.” That capacity is then shared amongst assets.

That can reduce CAPEX investments, and it allows you to better utilize server resources. “Operationally,” says Sloan, “it means that a solution can be deployed faster and maintained more efficiently because you don’t have to go through a process of hardware configuration and testing of hardware assets for every new thing.” As Sloan notes, there are several types of virtualization, including virtualized networks and storage. Server virtualization, though—installing multiple virtual computers on one physical box— is the form with which most people are familiar. “Certainly the first place where virtualization has taken hold has been in servers,” says Sloan. “This one was the low-hanging fruit because of the real potential to save on capital expense when you don’t need to buy as many servers as often. But in order to build a real utility infrastructure, virtualization is needed in the whole stack, from storag  through network. These may be strategically important but they are not a quick ROI win like server virtualization and consolidation.”

Another potential benefit is that some newer applications can take advantage of certain forms of virtualizatio —thus broadening the potential use of the data center itself. Jeff Whitney, vice president of marketing for Intransa, points out that physical security applications like video surveillance are ideal candidates. “While 200TB is considered a large storage implementation for many IT data centers and would represent a significant database or data repository,” says Whitney, “it’s not particularly large for many video surveillance applications. A single big-box retail store (let alone airports, prisons, housing authorities, and other deployments) uses that much capacity for storing video in a single year, in many cases.”

Video applications bring new requirements to bear on the data center’s infrastructure. Obviously, they require lots of storage, but they also present an unusual I/O workload: Primarily, these apps engage in large, non sequential writes to disc, but with very few corresponding reads. When reads do occur, they often occur all at once, in response to a security breach or other trigger. The sudden load may best be handled by a virtualized environment: “With security needs increasing more rapidly than general server and storage needs in IT, the need for an appliance (virtual or hardware) that can interface with the camera network yet connect to reliable, affordable, and scalable CPU and storage resources— which virtualization offers as part of its basic business case—means a huge opportunity for providers of equipment and IT departments both,” says Whitney.

Video-based security may only be the tip of the virtualized data center iceberg. There’s no way of knowing because not all of them have yet emerged—what businesses will arise (or evolve) to make use of the reliability, scalability, and affordability of virtualized solutions that can help spread the data center load (and costs) across diverse domains and multiple cost centers.

The Risks Of Virtualization
While virtualization is potentially a valuable approach, it is not a panacea: After all, virtualized bad practices remain bad practices; they’re simply more efficient bad practices. Any virtualized implementation brings with it some risk— there are potential downsides to taking the plunge.

“The downside of consolidation,” says Info-Tech’s John Sloan, “is that managing a consolidated and virtualized infrastructure is more complex than managing discrete non-virtualized elements.”

The one-to-one relationship to which we referred earlier may be inefficient (resulting in server sprawl, storage silos, and the like) but at least it was straightforward and easy to understand. If you need to quantify your investment in a particular project or undertaking, just take a look at the invoice for the servers you’ve devoted to it. In a virtualized world, it’s no longer that simple, says Sloan. “You’re now talking about a partition of a larger pool of resources,” he says, “so showing the cost of the piece of the larger whole can be difficult—a slice of processing, a slice of memory, a slice of network bandwidth, a slice of storage.”

That increased complexity also means it’s more difficult to show that performance will be maintained when there are multiple virtual and physical layers involved. After all, if an application isn’t performing as you’d hoped, how does one isolate the fault? And if it’s difficult to isolate a problem, is it not also difficult to resolve it? Sloan points out that Info-Tech research indicates a fairly high success rate when it comes to infrastructure consolidation and virtualization. And yet, as with any complex process, dangers lurk. “Make sure you have your storage consolidation strategy first,” says Sloan. “Storage is expensive and I have seen SMBs that are investing in new server hardware and server virtualization see the expected capital savings get sucked up by the cost of consolidated storage. This is especially a risk if the number of servers is relatively small in a small business.”

Sloan points out that the risk does not mean that companies—small or large—should not virtualize, but that they should do their homework first. “The CAPEX savings of server consolidation scale with the volume of servers being virtualized. This isn’t to say that smaller shops shouldn’t virtualize but that the value will be in other areas, like agility and resiliency (for things like disaster recovery, for example) rather than in big savings on hardware.”

Intransa’s Jeff Whitney points out another potential risk that could be avoided—or at least mitigated—by doing your homework: He sees virtualization projects fail for a lack of adequate and appropriate testing, and notes that test installations must include working with applications and platforms that have been tested and certified for use together in an environment similar to the one that will eventually be rolled out. “Selecting a platform that hasn’t been integration tested with the applications to be used in a virtualized environment could easily lead to significant, unnecessary costs, and the risk of project failure,” he says.

Security is another potential issue. After all, if you have your entire IT infrastructure—email servers, content server, telephony, in-house communications network, and more—spread out on racks in a data center, that’s one thing. Disaster could certainly befall the data center; anything from a flood to a lightning strike could make short work of your infrastructure, if you’re not prepared.

However, it would be difficult to steal that infrastructure. It resides, after all, on multiple servers bolted to a set of physical racks that are in turn bolted to a floor, all of it behind a locked door. It may be thousands of pounds of unwieldy equipment made up of discrete pieces of machinery.

Think, though, about a virtualized setup in which one physical box is doing the work of six or eight or ten. How difficult would it be to pick up and walk out of your shop with that one box? Could a vandal do it? How about a thief? How about a disgruntled employee?

And if you’re not terribly worried about a physical thief carrying off the physical box, what about a hacker who breaks into the one piece of equipment that holds your company’s entire infrastructure? A rogue admin, maybe? Someone clever enough to move your virtual servers onto physical hosts in some other environment?

The issue is not that these virtualized environments cannot be secured—almost certainly they can be. But the technology is new enough (and potentially beneficial enough) that C-level execs and high-level managers need to ask the question: Are they in fact being secured? Or is the IT staff so enamored of the buttons and lights that they’ve made the jump into virtualization without considering the security—and other—implications?

Do Your Homework & Benefit
Virtualization has been touted as the be-all, end-all of data center efficiency—and also vilified as a dangerously overhyped technology that allows vendors and consultants to make money without conferring much benefit on end users. As with any other technology, the truth of virtualization’s utility probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. ▲

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