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Sun 30 Dec 2007 04:00 AM

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Multiplier effect

Virtualisation is currently the hottest trend in datacentres - but as yet, few regional enterprises seem to have taken the plunge. Imthishan Giado investigates how virtualisation, along with thin clients, is on course to transform enterprise computing.

For regional IT managers and CIOs building or upgrading their datacentre, the virtualisation buzz has risen from a background hum to a full fledged roar, threatening to engulf all technology discussion.

CIOs may well ask if this scene is not all too familiar: vendors hype up to fever pitch a technology that's not quite ready for primetime, foist it onto overworked CIOs with bold unsubstantiated claims and then proudly trump the improved second generation when the first generation just about begins to pay for itself.

We see a lot of hype but few implementations. There will be a lot of things happening in the next six months, in terms of explaining what different virtualisation needs exist from a customer viewpoint.

Virtualisation presents even more of a quandary - the ability to reduce costs significantly, but at the cost of potentially increased complexity. Thin clients, the technology leading the charge into virtualisation, is equally contentious, having tried (and failed) in the late 1990s to achieve market success. So it is not unreasonable to expect regional CIOs to treat these new entrants with a certain jaundiced eye, borne out by the lack of announced implementations in the Midde East.

Basil Ayass, system sales specialist for MENA at Sun, says customers should not judge too quickly:"Ten or 15 years ago, the technology wasn't quite as integrated or as easy to manage and didn't deliver the efficiency of a non-virtualised environment. However, now I think that the technology is mature and it can deliver the same service level yet save you money and cost while implementing it."

Desmond Nair, Microsoft's server and tools business group manager, concurs: "Most organisations are seeing virtualisation as the next big thing or calling it the holy grail of IT. We absolutely agree: being able to utilise your resources for as much as they're worth is something that every organisation is striving towards."

Lost in the hype, says Ayass, is a precise definition of what virtualisation exactly is: "It's a tool that customers can use to simplify their IT computing environment. So it's not one software, one hardware - it's a methodology. When you virtualise, you consolidate, saving money, space and cost and make your IT computing infrastructure simpler."

With the ability of nearly of every piece or hardware to be virtualised, it's equally difficult for many to understand the advantages of virtualisation in each instance. Take one of software virtualisation's more flashy abilities: the ability to run multiple operating systems or versions simultaneously on a single piece of hardware. That's what most people want to talk about, says Aaron White, partner business manager for MENA at VMware, but companies should stick to the clear business benefits of making applications highly available.

"Virtualisation is just an enabler technology - the key thing is how you essentially manage it. Virtualisation should provide you business benefits such as a high availability and the ability to easily deploy new services. Say you're a telco - all telcos are looking to provide new services to their userbase, so it's important they can get to market very fast. What we're able to do is help people who take days to deploy a new server service bring that down to minutes, giving CIOs and IT managers a lot more agility from a datacentre point of view. Rather than say, ‘we've got this timeline to deploy these services', we can essentially make that a single mouseclick operation," he explains.

Ayass notes another benefit of virtualisation is the capability to take legacy applications and operating systems and run them on the latest hardware, leading to significant performance increases.

"Let's take the example of Windows 2000, which is no longer updated or supported by Microsoft. Instead of keeping it on old hardware taking up space in your datacentre using a lot of electricity, virtualisation allows you to take that application and place it in a new virtual environment, taking advantage of the latest hardware and technologies. The idea is to be transparent - the application and the OS doesn't realise that it's running on new hardware, it just gets a lot faster response. That's what virtualisation does - it tricks, it pretends.

"Intel and AMD have introduced quad core CPUs. These CPUs give you twice, four times the performance of the older CPUs, but are priced the same and most often less than the older technology. So you're getting a lot more computer power at a lot cheaper price - and that's why we need to use virtualisation to take advantage of the new technology," he says.
Storage is another key link in the virtualisation chain. Hu Yoshida, CTO of Hitachi Data Systems, quotes internal company findings as finding enterprise storage woefully underutilised with figures of between 20% and 30%. He suggests four means of using virtualisation to improve utilisation.

"One thing is to consolidate user storage across multiple datacentres, increasing efficiency. The second is increased utilisation - the tool we use is thin provisioning. Right now, users allocate so much space - which they rarely ever utilise. We just provision what he actually touches - we tell him we got this amount and give him what he actually uses.

"The third approach is to eliminate a lot of the storage redundancies that you have. Not too long ago people were saying, ‘store everything forever' - which isn't feasible. There are many copies made for backup recovery, business continuance, development tests and so on. With thin provisioning we can reduce to only copying what they use - not the whole allocated space. Finally, reduce the working set - I mean archiving. For example, you have a lot of e-mails in your mailbox which you have to back up. Eliminate all the inactive data and just keep the active data on the productive set so that when you do the backups and maintenance, you're just working with the active data," says Yoshida.

You have to think of the overhead in terms of the performance hit you’re getting because you’re introducing virtualisation – will it be paid for by the higher utilisation and consolidation factors that you are realising?

With so many obvious advantages and vendors being so openly enthusiastic, it's then surprising that no implementations have been officially announced in the region. Antoine Aguado, regional manager for Citrix Systems Middle East, asks for patience amidst the propaganda.

"We see a lot of hype but few implementations. There will be a lot of things happening in the next six months, first of all in terms of knowledge transfer to the market - whether it's in the channel, or explaining what exactly the different virtualisation needs are from a customer point of view. We expect the enterprise space to be the first adopters of virtualisation server technology," says Aguado.

Gautam Srivastava, vice president, sales and marketing and managing director for AMD Middle East, Africa and Pakistan, says that many companies are considering or implementing it, but remain reluctant to go public.

"They aren't often ready to discuss it, partly because it may be perceived as a competitive advantage to their business or they've made various arrangements they're not ready to talk about. Or, it's just new for them and they want to run with it for a little while. But we clearly see examples. I am not involved with an enterprise today where we're discussing the sale of a system without discussing virtualisation performance.

"It's the unknown factor when it comes to choosing any piece of technology. We ran a virtualisation focus group about two months ago of Dubai enterprises. The feedback was, ‘we're all testing virtualisation.' I think only one out of the 20 companies in the room had actually started to use virtualisation technology. The reason for this is because they're not really sure where the industry is going with regards to virtualisation," says Srivastava.

Yoshida believes this caution also extends to the storage sector: "Storage people in general are very cautious - once you put your data here, you're got to protect it, back it up and all that. The other thing is that many people are not willing to change. When I talk to CIOs, many of them recognise the need for virtualisation but they can't get there because their people aren't ready to embrace it. On the other hand, I talk to the operations people and they say, ‘This works good enough - I might be fired if I change things.' You've got to make that leap to get to the services oriented approach."

The prospect of actually setting up and maintaining a complex virtualised environment can be a daunting prospect to CIOs. Nair says that companies are right in thinking virtualisation can get very complex before it gets simple.

"It's probably the biggest mistake that customers make today, thinking that virtualisation will help reduce complexity in their organisation. Like any piece of technology, it requires a certain number of things to be done. One, you need to be able to understand it. Secondly, it needs to be integrated into your environment, a part which many people forget. When it comes to integration, it needs to integrate with your directory, security and management. If all of these pieces don't really fall into place as one, you potentially stand the chance of increasing the maintenance costs you're spending on your IT environment as opposed to reducing it," he states.
Virtualising a datacentre could potentially lead to huge power savings, as servers can deliver more utilisation with the same power envelope. Expect other green benefits as well, says Thomas Pietsch, HP StorageWorks Division lead SPO for the Middle East - although the region has been slow in recognising them.

"When you virtualise and start thin provisioning your high end systems, you actually start saving power. It's not only power consumption - the less devices you need to keep spinning, the less cooling you need in your datacentre, where cooling costs can be very high. It's not like in Europe or the UK, where when you run a datacentre, you must show what you do with the excess heat generated by cooling - these factors are not so critical here. Ten years ago, this was not an issue at all. Now we see pressure coming out of individual datacentres that are looking to see how they can reduce power consumption and reduce cooling needs," says Pietsch.

Thin client technology is the other blast from the past accompanying virtualisation. With a little back-history, Srivastava explains why things might be different this time.

"In the past, thin clients had issues. One was just the cost of the hardware, which wasn't very thin and didn't really have the performance to render effective terminal sessions. Then there were the tremendous infrastructure costs. That was a time where to have thousands of thin clients working off a data farm, with its energy consumption they would just scale the cost.

"Now you're coming to a world where hardware is becoming much more efficient. If you look at process and technology in a multicore environment, each core is now more efficient than it was in the past, alongside virtualisation software that's also far more sophisticated. So on those two levels alone, I think you're seeing an economic case for thin clients," he says.

"I won't say that virtualised or thin clients are appropriate for every single user out there but people who are simply doing routine office or administration tasks which don't require heavy duty graphics, then the advantages of using thin clients are that you have very easy upgrades, reduced administration time, much better security for the users - because everything is server-based - and the ability to upgrade to next generation operating systems very quickly and more importantly, roll it back," says Citrix's White.

One of the major concerns of virtualisation is whether it will adversely affect the performance of the datacentre. Ayass says that this inevitable performance reduction is mitigated by the improved utilisation.

"You have to think of the overhead in terms of the performance hit you're getting because you're introducing virtualisation - will it be paid for by the higher utilisation and consolidation factors that you are realising? Most of the time, when we do that compromise and study it in a TCO or RoI fashion, the business case is there," he says.

According to Ayass, the other major issue relating to virtualisation is that of software licensing.

"Specifically from the software that is most commonly used in the industry - that would be Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Citrix - most software vendors are struggling with their virtualisation licensing methodology. Not only that, but they are also struggling with their support process. When you are running a virtualised environment, the way you support it and license it differs.

"However, there's been a progression in the software industry to account for a virtualised environment. I think software vendors held off to let virtualisation run its course and prove its worth. Now that it has, they have implemented specific licensing modules around the virtualised environment. There's still some progress to be made, however, it's being addressed and currently an ongoing effort from the software vendors," he says.

"The reason why I think virtualisation is of such interest to IT managers today is because they look at their data farms and say, ‘I could be doing more with what I already have, without necessarily increasing my energy costs or making too many more hardware infrastructure purchases," concludes Srivastava.

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