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Sun 20 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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Keeping IT simple

Datacentre cost and complexity is increasing at an exponential rate, but virtualisation gives companies the ability to rein in expenses and better utilise existing hardware

Introduction|~||~||~|Servers are going for (comparatively) cheap prices these days, making it much easier for companies to buy one when needed. As a result, many organisations have developed a habit of buying a new server each time they plan to install another enterprise application for their organisation, and dedicate a server to a single application.

Some even purchase servers for each of the key departments within their organisation. Hence, you will see companies that have separate accounting servers, marketing servers, engineering servers, and so on.

Because of that, many enterprises get what the industry calls server sprawl. It is a situation where companies end up owning multiple, under-utilised servers, which take up more space and consume more resources than can be justified.

Managing these servers is definitely a challenge, especially when servers are spread across multiple locations, says Desmond Nair, server manager, Microsoft Gulf.

“Because of the continuously low cost of acquisition of hardware, we are starting to see a lot of servers are being acquired by large organisations. What is happening is what we call server sprawl,” says Nair. “A lot of servers have been bought to do a lot of things in organisations. So they have reached a point now that they have so many servers that the complexity of managing these servers are causing issues and are a cost factor.”

Capacity utilisation — or the lack of it — is one of the biggest issues with server sprawl. Analyst firm Gartner estimates that on average the capacity utilisation of servers in a typical company is no more than 20%. The remaining 80% is largely wasted. For a company that has 100 servers, that is a huge waste of computing resources, considering the costs of maintaining these servers are not cheap.

“According to Gartner’s Martin Reynolds, enterprises that do not leverage virtualisation will pay up to 40% more in acquisition costs by 2008 and roughly 20% more in administrative costs,” says Khaldoun Aboul-Saoud, regional manager for market
development, Intel Gulf.

To fight the rising costs brought about by swelling data centres, many enterprises are slowly turning to server virtualisation to eliminate unnecessary maintenance expenses.
Virtualisation, while not a new technology, is still considered an emerging one in the Middle East. Contrary to what is happening in Western Europe and the US, server virtualisation is just starting to make its mark in the region.

“Virtualisation is not new. Virtualisation existed in the mainframes many decades ago,” says Rajmohan Peruri, channel account manager of Magirus Middle East, which is the regional distributor of VMware solutions. “[But] the virtualisation market is very much in the nascent phase here in the Middle East, not so much in the western world. It is already in the third generation,” he adds.

“I would classify it as an emerging technology in the region,” agrees Ryan D’Souza, product manager, industry standard servers, HP Middle East. “However, in most of Western Europe and the US, it is being adopted to a much greater extent. In terms of adoption, customers in the region are not yet comfortable with virtualisation. A lot of concentration in the market is still resting in the maturity as far as going for virtualisation technology is concerned,” D’Souze said.
||**||Slow takeup|~||~||~|D’Souza says that for the most part the Middle East is still toying around with the idea of virtualisation. “There are some customers who have gone down the path of evaluating the benefits that they would get out of virtualisation. There are a lot of customers who are still in that evaluation phase,” he claims.

Nair believes the reason for the slow growth, particularly in the past, is twofold: the high acquisition cost of virtualisation solutions and the lack of technical skills to support the technology.

“The industry, as a whole, has a lot of technologies out there, which offers virtualisation solutions, but they were very expensive in terms of acquisition. It’s also partly because there were not a lot of very in-depth technical skills to get these products deployed and used in their environment,” Nair says.

“Virtualisation is not simply bringing your servers together and trying in some middleware or something like that,” agrees D’Souza. “You have to look at other considerations, such as the cost it will take, how you redeploy your equipment, the licensing schemes for your software and applications, the compatibility between your software and applications, and so on. There is a lot of work that goes into defining a strategy as opposed to just testing them out,” he adds.

Yasser Ragaei, business manager for enterprise systems at Hewlett-Packard Middle East, says the slow uptake of virtualisation in the region is the result of the typical behaviour of local companies when faced with new or unproven technology.

“Customers normally need to see a reference. They need to see somebody else in the same industry, in the same country deploying the same thing. That is why things start slow, especially in the Middle East, because in the Middle East people are more conservative and IT is not different from other areas,” Ragaei reasons.

That is why, he adds, HP is actively pushing to get more local customers to talk about their virtualisation projects to encourage their peers to try the technology as well.
“We are getting references now, and we are making them visible so that other customers can understand and even talk to these customers and see what business values and benefits they get from the virtualisation capabilities that HP provides. Hopefully, that will encourage them more to deploy virtualisation. And once you get more customers deploying it, you will give more confidence to other customers and it will keep increasing on both sides. More references will get you more sales and if you get more sales you get more references and so on,” he goes on to say.

Microsoft, according to Nair, is also trying to get its virtualisation message across the region. He says it is getting positive feedback from the customers it talks to, and believes that the uptake of virtualisation will happen soon.

“We started to see quite an uptake. In fact, we have over 2,000 downloads of the Virtual Server technology happening in the region, which for me is a tremendous success considering that worldwide it’s just over 100,000 downloads,” Nair says.

“There is definitely an interest in this. For Microsoft, we are very excited that this is happening because it shows that customers are starting to use the technology and realise the business value,” he continues.

Early adopters of virtualisation in the region consist mainly of large enterprises, particularly those that come from the telecom and banking sectors.

“The banking and the telco sectors, because they have a lot of competition in the market, are the ones that are aggressively adopting virtualisation technology,” Ragaei says. “They have to capitalise on every opportunity or on every business change that happens in the market so that they can be more competitive and run before their competitors. By using virtualisation they are able to respond better to their customers and to capture every business opportunity around.”
||**||Key areas|~||~||~|According to Nair, there are four key areas where virtualisation is applied today: server consolidation, disaster recovery, hosting, and software testing and development. Server consolidation, he says, is the reason behind most large enterprises’ and upper midsize businesses’ virtualisation projects.

“Server consolidation is an interesting thing and it comes to what I said earlier about server sprawl. Essentially, if you look at most businesses today, most of the servers that are in the businesses today only run between 5% and 15% of processor utilisation. Essentially, what customers have are different servers doing different things and they are really not being used to their full potential,” he says.

What server virtualisation aims to do in the consolidation space is to take all of a company’s servers that are running at 5% or 10% utilisation, pool five or six of them into one server and make the most use of this pool as one virtual server. That way, virtualisation not only helps reduce the cost of maintaining the servers, it also minimises the complexity around managing them.
“When we talk about virtualisation, it is all about reducing the cost and complexity so that IT can be flexible in real time and supply meets demands. This is the whole idea of us promoting virtualisation. Virtualisation is a proven IT approach that pulls and shares resources to reduce cost, optimise utilisation, and create an infrastructure where supply automatically meets demands,” adds Aboul-Saoud.

“The major concerns among IT departments are to increase utilisation of their resources, to reduce the cost. These are the common objectives for all of them,” continues Aboul-Saoud.

For this reason, HP’s D’Souza says company that are struggling with the growth of their IT infrastructures and the under-utilisation of their IT assets are the perfect candidates for virtualisation.

“If they have made an investment in a lot of servers that, specifically, keep on scaling outward and are not fully utilised, then they are ideal candidates for virtualisation,” he says.

“Organisations that simply buy equipment for the sake of buying equipment, because that has been the norm, need to look at virtualisation and add value to their environments,” he adds.

Disaster recovery is another area companies that invest in virtualisation can explore. According to Nair, Microsoft is working with customers in the region who have decided to put offsite, disaster recovery solutions based on virtual servers.

There is a tremendous cost benefit in using virtualisation in a disaster recovery environment, he says. “Essentially, a company’s live environment will have many different applications, databases, ERP, CRM, messaging systems, and so on, which are very mission critical to your business. But, in your disaster recovery site, you don’t really want to have five, 10 or 50 servers representing an exact duplication of what you have in your business. What customers do is they put up a single, very powerful server and on there they replicate everything on a virtualised environment, which is an easier way and as stable and as available as what a full duplicated environment would be like offered to you on a virtualised environment,” he explains.

Virtualisation is also perfect for hosting applications, particularly legacy systems, which tend to become more difficult and more costly to maintain.

“The older your applications get the more expensive it becomes to run and maintain them, for a number of reasons. One, to support and maintain it the cost of the skills needed to is quite high. If support is ended you are faced with a situation where something that is important to your business could be attacked on a security perspective. So, what a virtual environment allows you to do is to run these legacy applications in a more controlled environment,” Nair elaborates.
Take, for example a server running Windows NT4. Today, the operating system is no longer supported by Microsoft. What a company that is still running Windows NT4 can do, Nair suggests, is to run it on a virtualised environment on top of, say, a Windows Server 2003 system.

“Because Windows Server 2003 is still a supported platform, it creates a secure boundary around the Windows NT 4 environment,” Nair states.

One of the more popular deployments of virtualisation focuses on software testing and deployment. In this area, customers use virtualisation to replicate their live environments to run pilots of new applications.

“What virtualisation allows them to do, and I have seen a lot of companies do this really well, is they could set up their entire infrastructure on a single server. When you are looking to deploy something like a directory or a security system, it is going to span your entire organisation,” explains Nair.

“Many companies cannot afford to do an exact replica of their organisation in a lab. So in a virtual environment it allows them to set up their entire organisation, test the connectivity between their different regions even though they are in one room, using a virtual environment,” he says.

“This has become one of the most used areas of virtualisation. In fact, the first usage of virtual technology was really around testing and deployment of software, and it still continues to be today because it lowers the cost of planning and deployment of architecture,” he adds.

The majority of the virtualisation projects in the region are in the proof-of-concept stage, Nair said, although there are some who have decided to implement it at production level.
On the other hand, Peruri at Magirus claims it has a growing number of customers who have finished their pilot testing of the technology and are now already using virtualisation in the production mode.

“Typically a company would do a pilot on a couple of servers but then when they see the benefit that virtualisation brings, they rapidly move into the production environment,” he says.

The first applications that companies normally run in a virtual environment are those that are less resource-intensive, Peruri says, such as web servers, proxy servers, active directory and domain controllers. However, he believes that with the new features and enhancements included in today’s virtualisation technology, there is no reason for firms not to run large enterprise applications in virtual servers.

“There is no reason why you cannot virtualise the large applications or databases such as SQL, CRM or ERP. Today all of them can be virtualised,” he says.

||**||Fit for SMBs|~||~||~|While Peruri says that the obvious targets for virtualisation projects are the region’s big corporations — or any organisation with has an excess of 20 x86 servers, as he puts it — the technology is as beneficial to a small or midsize company as it is to a large enterprise.
“Just because virtualisation is being targeted at the usual suspects — large enterprises — it should not limit smaller organisations from implementing virtualisation. There are various benefits for them too. The benefits for SMBs could be different from those for larger enterprises.”

“A larger organisation that has 100 to 150 x86 servers, if they can bring it down to, say, 50, it’s a huge saving in cost as well as optimisation. To a smaller organisation, maybe they do not have that many servers to gain the advantage of cost, but the benefit might be something else. It could be about using their existing resources more effectively than those who have something like 25 to 30 servers. Instead of buying one server per application, they could utilise their existing resources more usefully,” Peruri explains.

To attract SMBs, vendors have developed new solutions and features that will fit the needs of smaller organisations. HP, for instance, has recently introduced a new technology called Integrity Virtual Machines, which allows soft partitioning and virtualisation even of a small server.

“Integrity Virtual Machines enable the customer to partition even a small server, even with one CPU, into multiple partitions to run as different or separate servers. Therefore, he does not need to have a big server to use virtualisation techniques. We have integrated Integrity Virtual Machines with our Serviceguard, which is our clustering technology, so we can cluster two small servers running multiple applications on completely separate environment using partitioning and still have the high availability between those two servers. We are pushing that across the smaller servers as well,” Ragaei says.

VMware, on the other hand, has introduced VMware Server, an entry-level hosted virtualisation product for Linux and Windows servers, which the company hopes will accelerate the mainstream adoption of virtualisation.

VMware Server, according to Peruri, is an ideal starting point for users seeking to familiarise themselves with the concept of virtualisation before progressing onto the enterprise-class suite of VMware virtual infrastructure products that includes ESX Server with Virtual SMP and VirtualCenter with VMotion technology for large-scale production server consolidation, business continuity and enterprise hosted desktop solutions.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is preparing for the launch of its new Windows server technology next year. Codenamed Longhorn, it will have virtualisation technology built into the operating system. This, according to Nair, will strengthen the uptake of virtualisation in enterprises of all sizes as the technology is included as part of the operating system.
“By default, when customers see the next version of Windows Server operating system, virtualisation will be part and parcel of the operating system,” he says.

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