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5 reasons to get into virtualisation

As the virtualisation trend evolves from hype to action we take a look at what fi ve industry players think are good reasons and ways to use the technology.

If you're not doing virtualisation you're either thinking about it, planning to do it, piloting it or at least reading about it. If you're not, well you're not really into IT. For the last few years the technology has been searing its way into the minds of decision makers and spreading its virtual tentacles into assorted elements of the IT architecture.

From servers to storage and networks to desktops, virtualisation has made its disruptive mark. And with the trend trickling down from large enterprise to the SMB space, many observers predict virtualisation will sucker a firmer hold on the Australian IT market in coming years.

According to figures from Gartner, in high per capita GDP Asia-Pacific nations like Australia, the amount of x86 servers that are virtualised will rise from 2 to 7 per cent by 2012. On the one physical server they predict an average of eight virtual servers by 2012 (up from six in 2007) and 30 per cent of operating systems to be run on virtual machines. Globally the analyst firm forecasts more than 4 million virtual machines will be installed on x86 servers by 2009 and the number of virtualised PCs will grow to 660 million by 2011.

While the figures are still relatively low at the moment, it is clear the push is beginning to move from hype to action. To gain a better understanding of how the virtualisation trend is unfolding we asked five companies to give us their views on some of the best ways and reasons to implement a virtualisation solution.

HP SAVE POWER, REDUCE COSTS, DECREASE DESK FOOTPRINT WITH THIN CLIENTS AND A VIRTUAL INFRASTRUCTURE

For HP's group manager of commercial product marketing personal systems group, Rob Kingston, the fact that many vendors now have virtualisation built into their servers makes it easier for organisations to deploy thin clients in the workplace and take advantage of a virtual infrastructure.

"I think the virtual desktop solutions that have been out there to date haven't really taken off - there has been a lot of hype and waiting," Kingston said. "Being available out of the box is great."

Through virtualisation and the use of thin clients, the provisioning of new desktops can be completed in minutes rather than hours or even days, he claimed.

"The opportunity I think is fantastic for getting rid of those distributed desk-tops and taking out a lot of the cost not only of the hardware, the power savings and the footprint on the desk but also taking away the management costs associated with the desk side of the business," Kingston said. "And also getting productivity gains from less down time."

He highlighted the education sector as one space where this trend is starting to appear. As the utilisation rate of PCs in institutions and the education sector is low it presents a chance for channel partners to make a play, Kingston claimed.

"That is what I see as the biggest opportunity at present because of the money that is being spent," he said.

"Depending on the lifecycle or where an organisation is at with their distributed desktop environment they may look at the back-end first and use their existing PCs as the access infrastructure until those machines come off lease and then replace them with a thin client device. And then over time transition to a solid-state device."

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EDS OVERCOME DATA GROWTH PAINS WITH STORAGE VIRTUALISATION

EDS CTO Asia, Rene Aerdts, said while virtualisation was a hot topic there is an emerging awareness of its limitations.

"We've started to realise some of the dos and don'ts of virtualisation," he said. "Some systems are very good candidates and very much the no-brainers of what we should do first. And there are some candidates that we should avoid at all costs."

Some of those areas to avoid include CPU-intensive and memory guzzling applications. However, Aerdts was positive the technology would improve and stated there are advantages to be leveraged today, particularly for those companies looking to accommodate a large growth in data.

"When we think about virtualisation it is usually in the server space and storage space," Aerdts said. "That is what we call one of the low hanging fruits. That is something that is pretty easy to do and some of the technologies are pretty mature.

"From a storage perspective with some companies growing between 75 and 100 per cent in storage per year, storage virtualisation is almost becoming a must these days. We just cannot hire enough people to manage the storage pool ourselves so we need to move towards technologies such as virtualisation to virtualise larger pools of storage."

This is particularly the case for large organisations that face increased regulatory requirements to store data online for quick access.

"What we're seeing in general across the globe is regulatory requirements in industries is driving the retention of data and maintaining the data in some kind of online fashion," Aerdts said.

But while virtual storage was one solution, Aerdts advised channel partners to ensure they thoroughly evaluated the business needs and storage infrastructure of their clients to obtain the greatest benefit.

"We need to look at what they want to do and what the biggest bang for the buck is," he said. "All of these technologies require some training from a skill set perspective and we need to address some money to get to the virtualisation space. So we need to leverage as much as possible."

Aerdts claimed storage virtualisation is seen a lot in finance, healthcare and telecommunications, although other verticals are also getting in on the act.

"I think those are the three major areas that we see gigantic movements from a storage perspective at the moment. But we see it happening across all different industries," he said. "Telecommunications is a great example because of the large amounts of data being retained."

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NETIQ SAVE TIME BY VIRTUALLY PROVISIONING SERVERS DURING PEAK DEMAND

Virtualisation can help save (a lot of) time when setting up IT infrastructure is the message being put forward by senior technical engineer at systems management software vendor NetIQ, Haf Saba.

"One of the common ways that it has been used is as a time saver to get the infrastructure going," he said. "What's nice about virtualisation is, if you think about the cost and time involved to source and acquire hardware and licensing and getting everything organised versus being able to dynamically turn on a virtual machine, it is a huge improvement in time saving."

According to Saba, virtualisation technologies have been used from this perspective to do server and datacentre consolidation.

"You've now got the ability to take advantage of other technologies like dynamic computing and server provisioning that is more accurate and aligned to the business," he explained.

"This will be based on growth. So if you think about a Web service provider that needs to scale service based on peak periods, being able to dynamically allocate a portion of the infrastructure to help in times of need is something that could not be done with physical equipment.

"What you will see over time is more tools becoming available that will automate that process better so we cut back still on the manual intervention involved."

While VMware has a big lead, particularly in the server virtualisation space, Saba claimed any channel player could take advantage of a virtual infrastructure play, including SMBs.

"Even on the flipside it's appropriate for a very small player. The reason for that is if you think about it, one accurately provisioned physical box off which to run a virtual platform may be enough for a very small organisation to run their entire fleet virtually," he said.

But although the benefits are well promoted channel players must also be aware of what the potential pitfalls are. For Saba these included: Overdoing the moving of virtual servers or what he calls "VMotion-sickness" - because it is just so easy to do; and "VMsprawl", or having too many virtual servers thereby increasing management difficulties and compliance concerns as a result of licensing issues.

A more personal touch

While the virtualisation bus has picked up advocates and proponents in these early stages of its journey, it is not without its pitfalls. Taking on a new technology for the novelty factor or simply because of the hype can lead a customer down a road full of costly potholes and obstacles. Unnecessary and complicated server management stress is just one common example. But by doing a comprehensive business analysis the channel can help to steer customers down the right track.

According to AppSense vice-president sales A/NZ, Sean Walsh, there are other considerations usually absent from the regular business analysis that should be acknowledged, especially in the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) space.

"VDI at the moment is in a research phase - yes people are aware of the technology, yes people are sort of dancing around it but the business drivers are not there yet because they're in some sort of hardware refresh or they want to do it with an application upgrade," Walsh said. He pointed to several large corporations from across verticals that have tested and piloted VDI solutions.

"Those projects haven't really been successful for a variety of reasons," Walsh claimed. "One of the main ones is that people look at it as just a desktop. We're going to virtualise a hundred desktops and whack it on the server farm and it will be fine. They forget about policy, they forget about profiles, they forget about personalisation, they forget about security.

"These are not issues that are small and minor but they are easy to not notice them in a distributed fat client environment because most people have unlocked or unmanaged PCs, it's just easier that way."

But in a centralised environment neglecting profiles and personalisation can make the user less inclined to agree VDI is a good way to go. Not being able to set your own desktop image for example - whether it is of your own kids, an idol, or any one of billions of options out there on the Internet - may just rub end users the wrong way. "Basically, the number one pitfall is around personalisation," Walsh claimed.

Letting your clients determine the way they view their virtual desktop, therefore, may just help ensure a smoother VDI ride.

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RED HAT CREATE SECURE INDEPENDENT VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS FOR DEVELOPMENT AND TESTING

Coming from an open source background doesn't change the way Red Hat general manager A/NZ, Max McLaren, views the benefits of virtualisation.

"I think there are a variety of benefits that people are seeking from virtualisation and I would suggest that those benefits are the same in the open source world as the proprietary world," he said.

Regardless of background the same benefits of server consolidation, green IT in the datacentre and cost savings generally apply. Yet McLaren also claimed virtualisation will become more widespread.

"I think the interesting thing is virtualisation has become the 'trend de jeure' with VMware's rise to prominence," he said.

McLaren highlighted the technology's use in sectors where having multiple but independent and secure environments is sought after; a prime example being developers.

"Developers like to be able to run up a virtual environment to try different stuff in their 'dev and test' environments," he noted. "It's used in a number of specific cases where they are compelled to use multiple desktop computers for multiple reasons."

He also pointed to industries where security is of the utmost importance as being interested in adopting a multilevel virtualised environment.

"People might want to virtualise in some of the military spaces where they may need a variety of different domains, like a top secret domain, a secret domain and a non-confidential domain," McLaren said. "The problem up until now is the security in a lot of virtual environments hasn't been adequate to provide for that."

But with many contemporary offerings you can wrap security around each application and environment, he pointed out.

"We can restrict virtualisation down to, for example, the NIC card," McLaren said. "So you have a security policy that would just have one virtual environment associated with your network interface card (NIC) and wrap security policy around that."

Tips and tricks
    With all the hype over the past couple of years we asked DataCore CEO, George Teixeira, to give us his tips and tricks for navigating a virtualisation play:

  • 1. Think end-to-end virtualisation; users have servers, desktop and storage resources that are not being fully utilised. Promote the strategic change and value of virtualisation as software that gets the most productivity and utilisation across all their hardware resources. Many resellers propose a tactical sale, a server solution plus a box, and the only differentiator is the colour of the box.

  • 2. A software-based virtual server and virtual storage solution will futureproof the environment for the user and create a consulting revenue stream for the reseller. Solutions such as Xenserver, VMware and DataCore all are hardware independent and therefore survive hardware platform obsolescence.

  • 3. Virtualisation goes beyond product, it is about change, people and procedures; all of which are opportunities for consulting and training for customers.

  • 4. Invest in training and make your engineers experts not only on virtual servers but on virtual storage and virtual desktops since customers want holistic solutions.

  • 5. Invest in the ability to demonstrate your solution; customers want to see complete solutions. For example, virtual server software advanced features such as VMotion require shared storage. Many partners therefore are looking at solutions like DataCore that enable partners to run a virtual SAN on the same platform and demonstrate the entire end-to-end virtualisation solution on a single laptop.

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NETAPP LEVERAGE THE VIRTUALISATION TREND TO HELP CLIENTS OVERCOME BUSINESS PROCESS ISSUES

Deriving benefits from virtualisation technology is clearly a good thing according to director of partner and public sector for storage vendor NetApp, Scott Morris. But leveraging the opportunity of implementing a virtualisation solution to help a client improve their overall business processes is a chance not to be passed up.

While virtualisation first became popular in the server space, these days virtualised infrastructures aim to reduce costs and improve efficiency across a much broader spectrum of the IT system.

"If you look at where virtualisation sits, and if you look at where the industry is now, it very much got born out of the server virtualisation perspective," Morris said. "I don't think anyone would argue that that is where most of the hype or market presence has come from."

But those looking to use virtualisation should not just look at how they will deploy the technology - they should also take the opportunity to evaluate internal processes, according to Morris.

"What have I actually done within my organisation to change the processes?" he questioned. "If you only look at one element in the virtualised environment, then the bottleneck has just moved somewhere else in the infrastructure."

Indeed, if a client has a business process that is inefficient to start off with and then deploys virtualisation, obviously the fundamental problem still exists. Even if you put the best technology in place you must deal with the provisioning, planning and security processes and back-end issues, Morris said.

This is particularly the case with large organisations that are coming up against scale and growth pains. Consequently, this state of affairs proffers an opportunity for the channel to advise the client to look holistically at their business.

"While it is easy to say that, the reason why organisations are in the state that they are is because typically they don't look at their business from the operational side," Morris said. "And they look to the IT side of the organisation as the utopia to go and fix a bunch of problems."

For Morris it doesn't matter if you have the greatest product on the market - unless you affect the business operations any solution will have a limited impact.

"It'll only be best utilised and best taken advantage of if we can impact and go in and help organisations change the way they are doing things," he said. "It's a great opportunity for the channel; the highest margin and highest value product set for our channel are those consulting opportunities."

Analyst speak

IDC research manager IT spending, JEAN-MARC ANNONIER, shares his thoughts on the virtualisation market.

While virtualisation used to be predominantly an enterprise play, IDC research manager IT spending, Jean-Marc Annonier, claims the scope of the game will change in coming years.

Highlighting the spread of virtualisation to different aspects of the IT infrastructure, he said most corporations were targeting virtualisation for its flexibility.

"Obviously going physical is not very flexible but any layer of virtualisation is very flexible because by definition it is very easy to change and you don't have physical stuff to do or change," Annonier said. "So [for example] if you are going to change your storage in a virtualised manner it is much easier than adding hard disk."

And aside from competition between VMware, Citrix and Microsoft in the server virtualisation space over management tools and the imminent uptake of dynamic computing (including VDI), Annonier believes the market will look to systems that are self healing - like Marathon's everRun product - to hedge the risk involved in moving to fewer, centralised servers.

"You do have a single point of failure if your physical server is going down," Annonier explained about virtual infrastructures.

"What the vendors are pushing for is the creation of solutions for unplanned downtime. So if the server goes down you get the same instance running on another physical server which would kick in straight away with no interruption to the service. That's the big thing in the coming years."

But potentially just as big is what the analyst called the "perfect solution" for SMBs being offered by France Telecom in Europe. Under the telco's 'Forfait Informatique' (IT package) for Euro 99 a month an SMB can get a fully virtualised IT service; a style of package Annonier reckoned may become popular in Australia.

"They manage everything for you - you have your desktop, you have your application, you have your storage," Annonier said. "All you have in your environment is a thin client and access to the Internet. And that is the way I see SMB going."

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MAKING YOUR MOVE

On the whole, while there are pitfalls to be aware of, the diverse range of reasons and ways to implement virtualisation provide the channel with opportunities to leverage today.

From migrating away from distributed fat client desktops to thin clients, using virtual storage to overcome data growth pain, dynamically turning on machines to accommodate demand spikes, provisioning secure independent environments for development and helping companies overcome internal business process issues, virtualisation can provide significant benefits.

And the range of driving factors will only continue to expand and the virtualisation tentacles grip ever more elements of the IT architecture both within large enterprise and the SMB space.

Uniquely virtual

As the virtualisation movement spreads beyond its stronghold of the server and storage space players are starting to witness some unique uses of the technology.

VMware senior product marketing manager Asia-Pacific, Andre Kemp, said some clients were using server virtualisation to sidestep geographic boundaries for proactive business continuity reasons.

"The basics of VMotion require that you have a 1Gb network connection between the two ESX servers [a VMware product] and access to shared storage," Kemp explained.

"Those lines that you would see on a diagram are no more than architectural lines. What we have seen customers do is create a stretched cluster. We have a couple of customers using VMotion between suburbs."

This basically allows them to move images from one server to another in a different suburb. So, for example, if the air conditioning has gone out in one datacentre they can move the virtual machines to another datacentre in another suburb and then do physical maintenance on the first datacentre.

Gen-i practice manager application delivery and virtualisation, Safi Obeidullah, said some clients wanted to leverage virtualisation to let employees work from home, particularly call centre operators.

Those who have taken the option get their corporate desktop, voice and data, and all their applications using a thin client and an Internet connection.

"As you know there is a lot of buzz around working from home and with the rise in fuel prices and the cost of travel it's a pretty good option staff are interested in," Obeidullah said. "It's people mainly that are typically in a call centre and are phonebased. For those guys it is easy to work from home as they don't necessarily need to have a lot of face-to-face interaction.

"But some people want to do it from home because of the travel cost, or they have kids at home."

In addition, other players are even envisaging a virtualisation derivative of online pop culture like Second Life. Citrix director strategy and operations, Dr Michael Harries, who also works with the firm's advanced products group, claimed the birth of 3D Internet would fuse with the business world in future.

"Perhaps a great example from left field that we are doing in the advanced products group is pulling collaboration technologies like GoToMeeting into virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft," he said.

"The idea being that there are some benefits you get from working with an avatar, that sense of being there, and ways that we can pick up on those benefits. Are there ways we can pick up the sense of presence and use them in business collaboration? How far can we go with that? How much further can that go? There has been a lot of work and talk about the Internet turning into a 3D environment over time."

For Harries being able to check what is going on in the office - by taking a virtual walk down the corridor - could become more common going forward.