Virtual Appliances: More Than Just Easy App Deployment?

Arthur Cole

Virtual appliances have proved exceedingly popular when it comes to deploying and managing key enterprise applications. But are these wonder tools having a greater influence on enterprise infrastructure and architecture than many people realize?

Particularly when it comes to tracking data across internal, external and cloud applications, what could be easier than deploying a specialized, all-software environment to handle a set of specific tasks, and then doing away with it at the click of a mouse when resources are needed elsewhere? Not only are the all-software environments more flexible than traditional hardware appliances, but they can be had far more cheaply as well.

That's why, in management circles in particular, virtual appliances are all the rage. F5 Networks recently added a new one to its Application Delivery Networking (ADN) portfolio, the F5 Enterprise Manager 2.2, designed primarily as a means to integrate physical and virtual environments under a single management regime. The package provides a full suite of reporting and management tools, as well as support for external databases for storage and analysis of monitoring statistics, in a form that is easily deployable and avoids costly hardware certification for data center technicians.

Virtual appliances are growing so popular, in fact, that the hunt is on to simplify their own management to extreme degrees. RPath, for instance, has added a new drag-and-drop interface to its software stack creation environment, rPathX6, that allows nearly anyone to build and manage virtual appliances or other software stacks. The system acts as a "service factory" that allows for visible assembly of these resources, deployment into virtual machine environments and eventual storage within a repository if necessary. The system is expected to be particularly useful to test newly created applications on various OS and database configurations.

In short, what virtual appliances represent is a shift away from general-purpose compute environments toward highly specialized ones aimed at specific applications and workloads, says CTO Edge's Mike Vizard. Already, processor designs are beginning to embrace this reality with the integration of graphics and transaction-oriented engines onto leading chips families. A key example is AMD's Fusion architecture and the upcoming "Bulldozer" Opteron that speeds up the data transfer among processor cores.

Like water, technology tends to follow the path of least resistance. Generally, that means the tools that provide the greatest benefit at the lowest cost usually win. In the case of virtual appliances, it's hard to argue that they don't meet both requirements extremely well.

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